Over the years there have been culture phenomena I’ve avoided for various reasons. It could be as fickle as my mood, the presence of Eric Robert’s Ugly Sister (or ERUS, as Justin coined), or the fact that I just missed the entry point before the culture became saturated by the book, TV, or film series. In “Better Late Than Never,” I look past my objections to see if the culture was right or wrong to embrace the phenomenon so strongly.
Title: The Sixth Sense
Release Date: August 6th, 1999
Objection: It may be hard to recall 1999, what with all that pre-millenial tension, dot-com money flowing, and the powerful Clinton Administration making life pretty okay for most Americans, but in the cinemas, there was a powerful scourge running rampant in our trailers. This force could not be undone, no one yet knew of Mt. Doom and casting things into fire. That was still two years away. All we could do is sit in darkened theaters and be held captive by this horrendous force that imperiled movie-going.
In the years prior to today’s film, Bruce Willis had made a string of c-grade action and thriller movies that were mediocre and largely forgotten. Movies like Mercury Rising and The Siege mean nothing to us now, but at the time, I noted they followed a trend of trailer that hid Bruce Willis until the half-way mark. I mean, Color of Night, was a misfire, but it didn’t mean you had to shamefully admit Willis was in your movie five years later. Being sensitive to dumb details like that, I was appalled to watch the The Sixth Sense trailer, in which Willis’s presence is only softly announced, and vowed I would never watch the movie “even if it becomes a box office money maker and gets nominated for awards and stuff.”
Ah, the impetuousness of youth.
The film would go on to earn dump-trucks of cash, garner a murder’s row of award nominations, and make a star of director M. Night Shyamalan.
In the proceeding decade and change, I held steadfast to my vow. The film’s secret had long been spoiled and though I was more willing to watch Shyamalan’s subsequent output, his first success was a film I happily avoided.
Now, it’s Halloween season on the Satellite Show and 13 years seems like enough of a wait.
The Film: Bruce Wills dies at the beginning and begins haunting a young, troubled boy who can see dead people. Yeah, I’m taking all the nuance out of it, but I think it’s important to understand two things. 1.) This movie really depends on its twist and 2.) Kind of falls apart without it. Now, let’s get into some nuance.
I think what made Shyamalan interesting, initially, is the way he merged the mundane with the supernatural. Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) just seems acutely troubled and possibly abused. His problems could have totally believable, rational, explanations. Instead, we get ghosts. That’s actually okay, and even the slow arrival of the revelation would work if not for having to market the film on the basis of this scene:
I get why people were hip to Osment in the movie. He does seem genuinely troubled. His terror, alienation, and inability to explain his situation to his mother are all conveyed with a rare verisimilitude considering the age of the actor. In fact, I’ll admit I like every scene between him and his mother (Toni Collette) because they just ache of a working-class reality. I’d happily watch more of them coping with Cole’s strange gift.
Hell, the gift itself, in its final manifestation, is pretty cool. I like the notion that Cole is helping the dead get their final say. The way he begins to heal once he starts listening to the dead is pretty awesome as well. I think it’s in this one area that Shyamalan excels as a writer. Apparently, it’s based on his own childhood fears and timidness and he successfully transmutes that into a character and plotline that is accessible to a general audience.
If only this were the totality of the movie. Far less successful is the Bruce Willis character. He gets a lot of screentime, being Willis, but I found his story to drag on and lack any of the depth of the Sear family. I suppose that comes back to the problem of the twist.
Huh. Should I be capitalizing it? “The Twist.” I mean, this plot point was the biggest thing since Keyser Soze. It earns the tall T, right?
Eh, I’m going to vote no, because the twist hampers Willis’s storyline once you know what’s actually going on with him. So many of his scenes are dependent on the mystery of his broken marriage that once you know the truth, all the air comes out of the balloon. It’s not like the truth about Tyler Durden or Mrs. Bates. The nature of those characters reward the watcher on subsequent viewings and the scenes offer a different sort of tension. The twist of The Sixth Sense is a spent cap-gun cartridge and the movie largely unravels if you go in with a complete understanding of the characters. In lieu of a new sort of tension, the scenes between Willis and his wife, played by Olivia Williams, lay flat, standing in the way of the more compelling interaction between Cole and his mother. Or Cole and the dead girl. Or Cole and …
And, I think, that’s the major failing of the film.
Also, there’s a truly meaty idea at the center of it, but it can’t get beyond the other things on the plate. It has to service a character “worthy” of Willis’s time. It has to offer scares because its nominally a horror picture. It has to deliver on certain expectations because the little kid sees dead people
And it has to have a twist.
Verdict: I probably would not have hated The Sixth Sense at the time.
That said, I think it would’ve joined the scrap heap that is the majority of Willis’s late-90s output. Consider the last time you thought of The Siege. Have you actually ever watched The Jackal? Willis made a lot of movies post Die Hard with A Vengeance that may shock you by their mere existence. Have you ever heard of Hostage? For me, The Sixth Sense would be filed here. Except for the outstanding moments between Osment and Collette, the flick is painfully late-90s. It lacks a certain staying power that other Willis movies like Die Hard, Twelve Monkeys, and even Color of Night possess. It’s all built on one revelation that, once known, offers little else to entertain the mind or the heart.
Which, I guess, is something of a commentary on that era. What a twist, indeed.