THE SIXTH SENSE: A Glimpse At A Director’s Potential That Was Never Seen Again
When most folks watch The Sixth Sense a second time, they're doing so to see how they missed the clues that spell out the film's famous twist. "He never actually speaks to the mother!" "He's always got the same clothes on!" etc. But when I re-watch it, I'm more tickled by the things that struck me as odd when I first saw it, and that I failed to give any more thought to - such as the scene where Cole and Malcolm go to the wake for the little girl. Sitting in my seat that opening weekend in August of 1999, I distinctly remember thinking "No one seems to notice this stranger and a little boy walking upstairs?" Of course in reality, it's just the little boy wandering around, something no one would think twice about at such a huge family gathering, as everyone would just assume it was some second cousin's son that they never met.
There are other examples ("Malcolm at the hospital with the mom? Why would she think to call him?" is one, but my favorite is that I remember thinking it was kind of dickish of Malcolm to stand in the aisle during the second play, potentially blocking the view of the dad sitting in the back row), but the one at the wake really sticks out, because another few seconds of thought probably would have resulted in my figuring out the twist. But therein lies the genius of the movie - M. Night Shyamalan constantly practically gives it away, and then distracts us with something before we have time to think about it too much. Time and time again, he gives us just enough info to keep us satisfied with any potential plot holes (while never* cheating), and then offering up a scare or something equally compelling before that evidence is scrutinized. In this scene's case, it's the horrible reveal that the little girl (Mischa Barton!) was actually poisoned to death by her mother - our curiosity about the tape (and our tension from the minor scare that preceded its introduction) has us forgetting all about the fact that two strangers are at this family gathering unnoticed.
Another great thing about watching this movie in retrospect is how nice it is to see Bruce Willis actually ACTING (and with hair to boot). Nowadays, an engaged Willis is the exception, not the rule (Looper and Moonrise Kingdom are among the precious few recent examples of him putting some effort into a project), but back then it was fairly rare that he'd sleepwalk through a movie. But even for the period, this is unquestionably one of his strongest performances; Twelve Monkeys may be the only other '90s movie where he managed to shed so much of his usual persona and fully inhabit a character. Most of the time now I just see Bruce Willis in the movie (which is why the last Die Hard showcases a character that isn't actually John McClane), but this is Malcolm Crowe, a respected child psychiatrist who would look weird holding a gun or running from an explosion. His minor comedic bits and the two big emotional scenes (telling Cole that he has to stop seeing him, and his goodbye to his wife) don't seem out of place at all, a huge difference from say, The Prince, a recent Taken ripoff where he played the bad guy and looked half asleep even when his character's family was being killed. As the bad performances start to outnumber the good (thanks to his bizarre insistence on taking roles in DTV/limited release crap in order to collect a paycheck - does he really need the money?), his best performances - and this is one of them, no doubt - will look even better.
Of course, Willis isn't the only one whose stock has plummeted since this film's extraordinary box office run (it came close to grossing $300m after a $26m opening weekend - to compare, three movies that opened to $29m this year all ended up with around $70m total). M. Night Shyamalan would also never hit these sort of heights again, though unlike Willis he hadn't had a big hit before - his previous two movies (small indies) grossed less than $400,000 combined. Signs would be his only other huge hit; all but one of his subsequent films would actually have bigger opening weekends, but none would come close to reaching the same audience numbers (even Signs; as big as it was, it only had about 2/3s as many ticket buyers as Sixth Sense). I'd hear an argument that Unbreakable is a better film (it's certainly more ambitious), but it's easy to see why his subsequent efforts never measured up - he kept trying to capture lightning in a bottle again, hoping for that "you won't believe the twist!" hype to get folks to keep coming in droves. By the time The Village rolled around, his shtick was getting tiresome, and while his following movies all more or less eschewed any sort of big reveals in their closing moments, his name alone was enough to turn people away. Eventually they'd stop using it entirely; trailers for After Earth focused only on the Smiths and didn't mention him - just a few years after Fox actually sold The Happening on "The first R rated film from M. Night Shyamalan!".
So it's also nice to go back and re-watch for his sake, as he was still hungry and still in control of his story. Apparently the script went through several revisions (at one point it was about a serial killer), but you'd never know it from the finished product. Maybe we could use a little more time with Vincent Grey, but the balance between Willis and Haley Joel Osment's characters is perfect; each one's story expertly complements the other, allowing the film to have two hugely satisfying emotional payoffs (the aforementioned goodbye to Mrs. Crowe, and also Cole and his mom in the car) where most filmmakers would struggle with one. The twist and "see what you missed with a second viewing!" stuff overshadows the film's real strength - it's just as much Malcolm's movie as it is Cole's. You think about other movies with two male leads, and one is always favored to the other (Men in Black is more J than K; Shawshank is more Andy than Red, etc), but the spotlight never favors one over the other. You can look at it as a movie about a troubled kid learning to cope with his unique problem, or a movie about a psychiatrist trying to make amends, and you're right either way. Even more impressive when one actor was in his first lead and the other was/is one of the biggest stars in the world.
In short, it's a shame that the movie has become a sort of punchline over the years. Shyamalan sort of dug his own grave, but it's not his or anyone else's fault that the twist, once it was okay to casually reveal (in these pre-Twitter times it was pretty well kept; I remember hearing gasps on my second viewing during the film's third weekend), overshadowed the film's merits. Once it's the butt of a joke in an Adam Sandler movie or Lonely Island song, it gets a bit harder to remember that it's actually a really great movie that would have worked just as well if it ended with a very much alive Malcolm going home and telling his wife that he loved her. Maybe not as memorable (and certainly wouldn't have resulted in so many repeat viewings), but it'd still deliver two terrific performances, a handful of solid scares (oh yeah, it's one of the only four horror movies to earn a Best Picture nomination), and a refreshingly low-key and melancholy approach to a ghost story. And while it's fun to mock M. Night, let us not forget - lots of filmmakers make movies as bad as Lady in the Water, but only a handful will make any as good as The Sixth Sense.
*Not sure how he knows about Cole's free association that his mother finds. The only way the movie's logic works at all is if you realize that ghosts don't notice that they're not eating, not talking to anyone, etc because they're only around when it pertains to the thing they need to do, so why have a plot point revolving around information he would have had to have obtained off-screen? It's the only instance, I believe.