I have a thing against twists for the sake of twists. There’s a certain desire in creatives to surprise their audiences, to give them the unexpected, and the plot twist is an easy tool to use in such circumstances. The key to a good twist is that it needs to not only recast the movie that came before it so that the audience has to re-evaluate what they’ve just seen, but it also needs to be naturally built into the story itself. That leads to a compulsion to hide clues that otherwise shouldn’t be hidden, or to even outright lie (like in High Tension). The Sixth Sense is a film with a twist that very easily meets the parameters of a good twist because of a couple of major reasons.
So, Dr. Malcolm Crowe is celebrating with his wife after having won an award for his tireless work in child psychology that, according to him, he achieved after having sacrificed time in his marriage. The evening is interrupted when a nearly forgotten patient shows up as an adult and shoots Malcolm before blowing his own brains out. Skipping ahead a year and Malcolm watches a new patient, Cole Sear, cautiously approaching him and getting to know him and gaining the boy’s trust.
The first half or so of the film is told almost exclusively from Malcolm’s point of view. He observes Cole and tries to understand the child’s emotional issues through his psychological lens, and that’s how we see it as the audience. He’s a weird, introverted kid with odd little behaviors like talking to toy soldiers in Latin in a church. He has scratches on his arm. He can’t interact with other kids. It seems like an early version of schizophrenia.
And then the movie gives its first twist (which was never really a twist for the audience since the reveal was in every bit of marketing) that Cole can see dead people. They’re everywhere, all the time, and they plague his daily life. It’s here that the movie really moves into Cole’s perspective, splitting the rest of the run time between the two main characters, and we finally see what Cole sees. Horrific sights that won’t leave him alone. He has no safe places except the church and a little shrine under red blankets in his room populated with stolen statues of saints.
The first half of the film is a build up of character, showing us both Cole and Malcolm in great detail. The second half uses that solid base and throws the film fully into supernatural thriller territory as we get deeper into the mind of Cole as we watch him deal with the dead that surround him, but we also see Malcolm working towards his own healing, making up for his failing with the patient from the beginning of the film by helping Cole find his own ability to work with his curse.
That very strong base in character is what makes the final twist work even after multiple viewings. Perhaps some of the tricks used by the film to imply a certain reality that is not true become a bit more obvious for the viewer, who’s supposed to be tricked in those moments. However they still work for the characters themselves. The movie intelligently uses the tools of cinema to place characters in situations without any real explanation, implying interactions that never actually happen, and act like it’s cutting out the beginnings of scenes, a common modern cinematic practice.
Can you remember when Bruce Willis gave meaningful performances? It’s been about twenty years, but it did happen, and his performance as Dr. Malcolm Crowe shows that the man really did have acting talent at one time. Haley Joel Osment got all of the acting attention at the time, even getting nominated for an Oscar with this performance, and he is really remarkable. The quivers of his lips as he tries to explain things sells a character in abject fear of what he’s saying. I think, however, the real unsung hero of The Sixth Sense is Toni Collette as Cole’s mother, Lynn. She’s a working mother with questionable tastes in fashion, and she’s near the end of her rope. Her husband left her, her son seems crazy, and she’s barely surviving financially. When Cole finally reveals his secret to her with details he received from Lynn’s deceased mother, her breakdown is restrained and affecting all at once.
M. Night Shyamalan had made two films before this, his breakout, and just about no one has seen either. His first two don’t reflect the later obsessions, as far as I know (I’ll watch them eventually), but The Sixth Sense shows all of his strengths and even some of his weaknesses, though they don’t feel like weaknesses without the context of his later films. The twists are well built and feel like intelligent approaches to characters. The characters have very definitive quirks. The quiet of the first half is done to help focus the audience and build a sense of unease. The scares of the second half are really reliant on atmosphere because outside of that the sights aren’t actually that scary, but in context they are quite effective. With some of Shyamalan’s later issues, it’s amazing to see how thin of an edge’s knife The Sixth Sense dances on. One step too far in several different areas, and the whole exercise could have come crashing down.
As it stands, though, The Sixth Sense is in almost perfect balance. A psychological and supernatural thriller with strong character work, intelligent cinematic touches, and wonderful performances.