This takes me back. I can remember when M. Night Shyamalan was one of the hottest, most exciting directors in Hollywood, and we all eagerly anticipated his next film. Then he made “Unbreakable,” which was unbearable, “Signs,” which wasn’t terrible, but you could see the man behind the curtain, and then “The Village,” “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender,” which has to be probably the worst streak of movies from any director in the last decade. That a guy could fall from mentioned in the same sentence as Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher to being considered as bad as Uwe Bolle or Guy Ritchie is just… startling.
How did “The Sixth Sense” so completely pull the wool over our collective eyes? Re-watching it, I notice all the inconsistencies and not-so-subtle hints that make Shyamalan’s later work so hard to bear. They’re not so glaring here as in later pics, and that makes them easier to forgive. But really, I think the blame for all the high expectations we placed on Shyamalan’s shoulders really are the fault of a (then)-11 year old actor named Haley Joel Osment.
Osment plays a troubled kid who has a hard time making friends. The other kids at his school think he’s a freak, because he’s so easily frightened, and seems to know things he ought not know. Toni Collette is excellent (as always) playing his worried and frustrated single mom, trying terribly hard to keep things together that seem determined to come apart at the seams. And Bruce Willis is the child therapist assigned to help this poor kid sort through his issues.
Osment is just so bloody good in “The Sixth Sense,” it’s hard to pay attention to anything else about the film. His eyes are so sad. His grief and fear are so believable. Really, this movie works, because it’s an unorthodox act of misdirection; we, the audience are so busy empathizing with Osment, we’re not really paying attention to Willis and his situation. So when the twist at the end shifts our attention to him, we are legitimately surprised.
It’s a nice trick. Without Osment’s performance, it absolutely wouldn’t work. Shyamalan kept trying the same trick in film after film, but it never worked again. Nonetheless, “The Sixth Sense” is a pretty good film, and, once it’s old enough that it’s no longer a part of the pop culture consciousness (another 5-10 years, tops,) it will be fun to pull out and show to somebody who’s never heard of M. Night Shyamalan, or thinks he’s just a hack. Before long, that will be just about everybody, I imagine.