The Sixth Sense Essay

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"The Sixth Sense" isn't a thriller in the modern sense, but more of a ghost story of the sort that flourished years ago, when ordinary people glimpsed hidden dimensions. It has long been believed that children are better than adults at seeing ghosts; the barriers of skepticism and disbelief are not yet in place. In this film, a small boy solemnly tells his psychologist, "I see dead people. They want me to do things for them." He seems to be correct.

The psychologist is Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), who is shot one night in his home by an intruder, a man who had been his patient years earlier and believes he was wrongly treated. The man then turns the gun on himself. "The next fall," as the subtitles tell us, we see Crowe mended in body but perhaps not in spirit, as he takes on a new case, a boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) who exhibits some of the same problems as the patient who shot at him. Maybe this time he can get it right.

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The film shows us things adults do not see. When Cole's mother (Toni Collette) leaves the kitchen for just a second and comes back in the room, all of the doors and drawers are open. At school, he tells his teacher "they used to hang people here." When the teacher wonders how Cole could possibly know things like that, he helpfully tells him, "when you were a boy they called you Stuttering Stanley." It is Crowe's task to reach this boy and heal him, if healing is indeed what he needs. Perhaps he is calling for help; he knows the Latin for "from out of the depths I cry into you, oh Lord!" Crowe doesn't necessarily believe the boy's stories, but Crowe himself is suffering, in part because his wife, once so close, now seems to be drifting into an affair and doesn't seem to hear him when he talks to her. The boy tells him, "talk to her when she's asleep. That's when she'll hear you." Using an "as if" approach to therapy, Crowe asks Cole, "What do you think the dead people are trying to tell you?" This is an excellent question, seldom asked in ghost stories, where the heroes are usually so egocentric they think the ghosts have gone to all the trouble of appearing simply so they can see them. Cole has some ideas. Crowe wonders whether the ideas aren't sound even if there aren't really ghosts.

Bruce Willis often finds himself in fantasies and science fiction films. Perhaps he fits easily into them because he is so down to earth. He rarely seems ridiculous, even when everything else in the screen is absurd (see "Armageddon"), because he never over-reaches; he usually plays his characters flat and matter of fact. Here there is a poignancy in his bewilderment. The film opens with the mayor presenting him with a citation, and that moment precisely marks the beginning of his professional decline. He goes down with a sort of doomed dignity.

Haley Joel Osment, his young co-star, is a very good actor in a film where his character possibly has more lines than anyone else. He's in most of the scenes, and he has to act in them--this isn't a role for a cute kid who can stand there and look solemn in reaction shots. There are fairly involved dialogue passages between Willis and Osment that require good timing, reactions and the ability to listen. Osment is more than equal to them. And although the tendency is to notice how good he is, not every adult actor can play heavy dramatic scenes with a kid and not seem to condescend (or, even worse, to be subtly coaching and leading him). Willis can. Those scenes give the movie its weight and make it as convincing as, under the circumstances, it can possibly be.

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I have to admit I was blind-sided by the ending. The solution to many of the film's puzzlements is right there in plain view, and the movie hasn't cheated, but the very boldness of the storytelling carried me right past the crucial hints and right through to the end of the film, where everything takes on an intriguing new dimension. The film was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, whose previous film, "Wide Awake," was also about a little boy with a supernatural touch; he mourned his dead grandfather, and demanded an explanation from God. I didn't think that one worked. "The Sixth Sense" has a kind of calm, sneaky self-confidence that allows it to take us down a strange path, intriguingly.

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WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD

That The Sixth Sense became the phenomenon it did is perhaps less to do with its inherent qualities as a ghost story than the slyly worked "shock" ending being traded off at dinner parties the world over.

Indeed, it drew countless back to the cinema for reappraisal, just to see how they were hoodwinked so easily. The real trick, however, was to deliver such an emotionally complex story in the guise of a horror movie. In fact, nothing in the film was ever what you expected. M. Night Shyamalan, an Indian born but Philadelphia grown director who stems from a family of doctors, has a rather morbid fascination with linking children, spirituality and the paranormal. His first film, the ineffective Wide Awake (1998), studies a young Catholic boy trying to prove the existence of God after his grandfather dies. In The Sixth Sense, his device is more poignant and direct, a ghost story about emotional loss and unresolved differences — in which a boy is the cipher to the needs of the recently departed. A traumatic experience at its mildest, so child psychologist (and, yes, recently deceased) Malcolm Crowe (Willis) comes to his rescue and, in turn, his own.

As is oft the case, watching The Sixth Sense knowing that Willis is a ghost, opens the film up to a different perspective. A game of totting up all the pointers — most of which seem pretty blatant back to front — and just how skilled Shyamalan is at throwing us off the scent. The creative team devised a set of rules in which the film would operate while sustaining the shock of the denouement. Whenever the colour red appears it is a sign of something tainted by the dead; the steaming of breath in the presence of ghosts implys a strong negative emotional undercurrent (thus explaining why Willis' benign therapist doesn't elicit any); and the fact that Crowe can only add clothes to the look he was wearing the night he was killed.

Of course, this does not answer all questions: the fact that ghosts do not know they're ghosts would suggest a degree of personal confusion on their behalf — like why can I only talk to this pint-sized know all? Why do I not sleep or eat? Willis' expert performance, every inch of him understated, is vital in concealing the truth. He is soft and humane, suggesting psychological details with small gestures and an almost whispering tone (a skill only 12 Monkeys has born witness to before). How could he possibly be thought of as dead? But all the evidence is there.

The film, for its first half at least, is terrifically chilling (once the ghosts have proven benign much of its scariness evaporates). With Osment's ability to project childlike vulnerability without mawkishness or smarm, events play to the heart of a very basic human instinct: protecting a child.

When the ghosts appear, they whisk past the camera, the temperature drops suddenly, filigree hand-prints appear on table tops, building to full scale revelations of seemingly normal apparitions — with the exception of their fatal wounds (a boy turns round to reveal that the back of his head has been blown off). Subtlety is the key throughout, not big ding-dong stingers but evocative trails and hints of the truth, most of them mapped out across Osment's tormented face. Shyamalan's direction is the model of restraint — disquiet and stillness pervade while he expertly utilises sound to enhance the discomforting feeling of something indefinable being present (allowing the audience its own "sixth sense").

The background noise is a symphony of hissing breaths, the score, by James Newton Howard, splices in sonorous markers — such as just discernible evil, snarling voices — to add dramatic impact. Visually the film is elegantly austere, The Silence Of The Lambs (1991) cinematographer Tak Fujimoto shoots in mute, autumnal browns and greys, evoking a funereal gloom cast over the European-style architecture of Philadelphia (ironically, the same setting as 12 Monkeys — this city does Willis a lot of favours).

Osment — whose casting was pivotal — is a true discovery. He has to carry the heart of the movie as well as distract us from paying too much attention to Willis', well, deadness. Especially in the moments of supposed peril (the boy is, in fact, never in serious jeopardy) which he faces alone, the young actor handles the fear and vulnerability of his predicament with an emotional force. One of the film's sweetest nuances is in the expertly realised relationship between Cole and his blue collar mother (Collette) — he feels he cannot explain his predicament to her; in turn she cannot comprehend what is tormenting her son — emphasising Shyamalan's message of reconciliation. We must all just connect before it's too late.

There is an unnerving but emotionally satisfying maturity to The Sixth Sense that makes it so much more than a beautifully worked parlour trick. It's a ghost story about being human.

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