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Great Movies Roundtable: The Sixth Sense

#88 on AFI’s “100 Movies, 100 Years – 10th Anniversary Edition is “The Sixth Sense.”


This month we welcome Cameron Mooney (CM) to Great Movies Roundtable.

The Sixth Sense was the surprise hit of 1999, the second highest-grossing film of the year, behind Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. And yet it almost didn’t get made. David Vogel at Disney was fired for buying the script for the high price of $3 million and promising M. Night Shyamalan that he could direct his own script. Bruce Willis was cast in the principal role because he was cheap – in fact, he was free, having settled a lawsuit with Disney over a film he was supposed to produce by promising them three films without compensation. It was dumped on the market in late August, not an ideal time for a supernatural thriller with Oscar aspirations. It received six nominations anyway.

The story of a child psychologist’s (Bruce Willis) attempt to help a troubled young boy (Haley Joel Osment) who sees ghosts, its surprise ending is perhaps the most well-known and famous since the ending of Psycho. It established M. Night Shyamalan’s reputation for eerie, mysterious films with twist endings – a reputation he would ride into the ground in the next decade, creating universally hated films like The Happening and Lady in the Water.

General Thoughts?

WK: I’ll admit I came to this one with some skepticism. I remembered it being a good movie, but there are so few horror movies on AFI’s list, and I can easily think of 5 that ought to be there. I mean, who really thinks The Sixth Sense is better than The Shining? But as I re-watched it, I realized it’s not really a horror movie at all. There isn’t a villain, or really any evil presence. And there are only 2 or 3 jump scares. I’m not sure what to call it except a ghost story: it’s eerie and creepy, but ultimately life-affirming and even teary. The music playing over the end of the film would be perfectly at home in a Hallmark drama (you can’t say that about most horror flicks,) and if you don’t get misty-eyed in that scene between Osment and Collette in the car, I think your heart is two sizes too small.

CM: You know, the same goes here for me too. I also had some skepticism coming into this film. I believe the last time I watched it was when I was of the impressionable age where I thought Spy Kids 2 was my favorite movie. Needless to say, I think my movie taste has changed a little and now I can tell a good movie from a bad one. I feel like M. Night Shyamalan is the Hollywood embodiment of Korean cinema; incredibly intentional visual storytelling combined with expansive 3rd act exhibition. Knowing how the movie ends and then watching it again gave me a great chance to pick out the nuanced details. It’s neat to see shot-by-shot the story the film is telling but not saying if that makes any sense whatsoever.

CRH: Spy Kids 2? Ew. I also was pleasantly surprised by The Sixth Sense. This is the kind of movie that is excellent in theaters but tends to get butchered by watching it on TV. It wants you to be patient as it lays out the mystery and the characterization. M Night Shyamalan really hit the mark here by deciding to make this a simple, quiet film and slowly unwrap it, concluding strongly with the twist at the end. It’s a sad methodical story of a kid who is trying to make sense of his world after his father split on him.

WK: I think it was a smart move to never show the father – you feel his absence more because you never see him on the screen.

What Works?

CM: Each shot in this movie is carefully is expertly done. This is one of those movies where every frame matters and has something specific to convey to the audience above and beyond visualizing the narrative. I think specifically to scenes where you can see the breath of the actors against the cold air. It’s small details like this which really build the visual storytelling I was talking about earlier.

WK: The Sixth Sense was a reminder that, at least at this point in his career, Shyamalan was a master of formal composition. There are so many shots in this movie where you can almost see the storyboard drawing that came first. And his trademark reveals are all over the movie, and masterfully used – Shyamalan essentially replaces jump scares with these reveals, where the thing he wants you to see was there the whole time, you just didn’t see it.

CM: I think that Shyamalan also uses suspense masterfully. Whenever Osment encounters a ghost, the buildup to it is something I remember down to the very details – the changing of the lighting, the overt soundtrack mixing, the camera frame choices. These scenes get my heart pumping however, while the suspense is good the surprise that it leads up to is oftentimes wasted. I suppose that might be what Shyamalan was going for though, trying to show that the ghosts aren’t inherently evil they just need help moving on.

CRH: This is a classic ghost story told for a modern context. It has all the hallmarks. The scary things behind the curtain, the human drama and the sense of tragedy and ultimate resolution. At the end of a ghost story justice is done or a wound is healed and a soul is free to fly. In these sorts of films the visual storytelling must be spot on for repeated viewings. You have to be able to watch it again after knowing the twist and see how clever the filmmaker was and how he fooled you. Its delightful. When done right this thrills and satisfies the audience: but if done poorly, (I’m looking at you The Village!) it’s infuriating.

CM: I’m still upset about The Dark Knight Rises to this day.

CRH: I liked that movie but I’m usually in the minority, ha!

WK: I also really like Toni Collette in this movie. I like Collette in almost every movie I’ve seen her in; I think she’s a seriously underrated actress. But here, especially, I think she carries the emotional center of the movie. At first look, this is a movie about a kid who sees ghosts, and the ghost who tries to help him. But upon closer examination, you realize it’s about our struggles to communicate with the people we love, and even to protect them and take care of them. Collette conveys that theme so well, playing the overworked, stressed out single mom who loves her son to the world and back but seems doomed to watch helplessly as his struggles destroy him.

What Doesn’t Work?

CRH: My only complaint was when the camera went to handheld mode a few times in the story like when they are in the apartment after their trip to the hospital. Steadicam was invented for a reason.

WK: The handheld shots stick out like a sore thumb when everything else is so carefully composed. They were definitely distracting.

I only have minor complaints. I think Bruce Willis is miscast; it’s kind of weird to watch the actor famous for Die Hard, Twelve Monkeys, and Armageddon play a thoughtful, internally tortured child psychologist. He does the best he can with it, and is entirely sufficient, but it’s really beyond his range.

CM: The beginning scene does not work well for me. It’s hard to believe that after Dr. Crowe is shot at the start that he would be alive in the following scene. For continuity sake, I appreciate the match cut from the gunshot at the beginning to his realization while walking up the stair that he is dead. Personally, I want to believe that there might have been a chance that Dr. Crowe would have survived the gunshot. Rush him off to the hospital and have him die there. Have him pass out surrounded by paramedics. Give me something! At least I would believe the reasons he gives behind his failed relationship with his wife, because that was the hardest part to comprehend for me. I want to believe the breakdown of the marriage without guessing that there might be something fishy going on, like being an aloof ghost husband.

WK: It does break down at points. For instance, if ghosts only see what they want to see, why does Willis keep seeing his wife flirting with another guy?

CRH: I think him dying at home is the classic ghost story motif; that’s why his presence haunts his house. The event that forbade him from moving on was in his home so he could not leave. I do think Bruce Willis is sufficient: sadly, it wasn’t a career changing role.

WK: You don’t like Bruce Willis? I think he’s very good at what he does – this just isn’t what he usually does. But in movies like Looper and Bandits, he’s great! It’s hard to imagine anyone else in Die Hard. (Which, by the way, is another movie that should be on this list, and isn’t.)

CRH: I do love Bruce Willis. For the reasons described. He does okay here but imagine Hugo Weaving in this role.

CM: I too liked Bruno in this one. I thought he showed some great softy moments, like when he tells Osment how he has to work on his own family situation and essentially gives up. While it wasn’t his forte, I think he did a great job. I mean seriously, The Fifth Element was only a few years prior. He can do some different characters for sure.

CRH: Agreed, but his best character is the man of action, not necessarily the tormented intellectual.

Favorite Scenes?

WK: I already mentioned the tearjerking scene at the end; that’s a favorite. Also, the earlier scene between Osment and Collette, at the dinner table; the conversation about the grandmother’s pendant. The boy so wants to be honest with his mother, and be believed; she so desperately wants to be a good mother, both loving and not putting up with excuses and fibs. It’s a very moving scene.

CM: I’m going to say my favorite scene is when Osment and Willis have their first formal meeting. The “mind reading” game stuck out to me, the frame showing the slow, cautious footsteps of Osment. The reaction of Osment at the beginning is that of bewilderment as Willis guesses the broad details of the boys behavior. The scene and likewise the reactions shift halfway through the scene while Willis begins to look dumbfounded and then Osment controls the conversation. Brilliant.

WK: That scene is a great illustration of how to create stakes/suspense in a movie. You are totally drawn in, sitting on the edge of your seat, over a pretty simple concept.

CRH: I wanna give a shout out to the funeral scene. I think it stands out because it is a classic part of the ghost story where a ghost comes back to see justice done. The best line is where the little girl asks if her sister will still be around, like any grieving child would, and Osment replies “not anymore,” so softly and kindly. He saved this girl’s life but he giving comfort to her soul as well. Good stuff.

WK: Hey Courtland, I have a crazy theory for you. What if The Sixth Sense is actually about Native Americans? The boy sees ghosts, and repeatedly, knows the history of a place – especially his school – because of it. He lives in the midst of history that most people are not aware of. Because of that, he is often afraid, or distracted; all of that history all around him has a serious emotional impact on him. And all the people around him see him as a freak. The resolution of all this comes when he starts bringing messages from the past to people in the present. This brings him some degree of peace, but I’d imagine it is also its own burden. Do you see where I’m going here?

CRH: I think that is a valid application to this story. It is not enough to merely know the facts one must act and respond correctly. That is the point of ghost stories; to infuse tragedy with a touch of supernatural intervention. It reminds me of Chaucer: “Murder will out! ” Yes it will, but only when the dead are at peace. It reminds me of Frank Herbert’s novel Soul Catcher, which I really like and I think is one of the best novels about Natives written by a White guy which has a similar theme.

Buying or Selling?

CRH: Buying. It’s a great ghost story and it should remain on the list..

CM: I’m buying on this one. This is an amazing film and an overall hallmark of films containing huge twists. I’d say this is definitely within the top 100 films of all time, and belonging somewhere lower on the list. It’s by no means a perfect film, but fits as a memorable and timeless movie. It’s one of those films that stick with you as it definitely has with me.

WK: I’m feeling really torn on this. Shyamalan’s reputation has taken a pretty serious hit since the list was last updated (though it’s beginning to recover.) I still wish there were more classic horror movies on the list. Come on, it doesn’t bother you guys that The Shining isn’t on the list?

CRH: It does bother me a great deal because The Shining is one of my favorites. I hope the AFI will rectify this point. The list definitely favors drama but I like a good horror movie any day.

CM: I will say though, the AFI is bonkers for Kubrick. I think I saw like every single one of his other movies on there. Maybe there’s some secret set of rules for horror movies? Who knows.

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Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, The Classic Movie Series.

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