Skip to main content

You’re a staring Stanley!

The Sixth Sense
(1999)

(SPOILERS) It has usually been a shrewd move for the Academy to ensure there’s at least one big hit among its Best Picture Oscar nominees. At least, until the era of ever-plummeting ratings; not only do the studios get to congratulate themselves for their own profligacy (often, but not always, the big hits are also the costliest productions), but the audience also has something to identify with and possibly root for. Plus, it evidences that the ceremony isn’t just about populism-shunning snobbery. The Sixth Sense provided Oscar’s supernatural bookend to a decade – albeit, The Green Mile also has a stake in this – that opened with Ghost while representing the kind of deliberate, skilfully-honed genre fare there was no shame in recognising. Plus, it had a twist. Everyone loves a twist.

As it happened, despite nominations in a handful of major categories (Director, Original Screenplay, both Supporting Actor and Actress) it won none (it was similarly left wanting by the BAFTAs). Its real achievement was just getting there, though. Not entirely unlike Stallone and Rocky (except Rocky won), once it became clear how steeped in genre M Night Shyamalan was – and how dependent he was on twists in the string of films that followed– they lost interest. There was to be no Spielberg-esque flirtation and eventual embrace. He was, for all his formal respectability, fairly low-brow. And he had a vulgar thing for cameos (Tarantino eventually learnt his lesson in the latter regard, kind of). If anything, after falling out of favour with both critics and public, Shyamalan has doubled down on his genre credentials; something like Glass is very identifiably from the same director as The Sixth Sense, but with the budget squeezed and the shlock upped, it wouldn’t even merit a passing glance from awards bodies.

Which, I think, is probably right. I don’t even think The Sixth Sense really merited such attention (while it’s very much more “blockbuster” in its beats, or perhaps because it is, Ghost holds up as the superior picture). Like many, I went into the cinema knowing there was a twist, although I managed to avoid any detail of what it was; I was able to guess it in the first five minutes (the overhead shot of bleeding Bruce on the couch gave it away), which made the picture, even on first viewing, interesting to examine from a structural point of view.

But it also exposed it as rather limited in range. It’s so focussed on withholding, on the element that you don’t see that forms the “Wow!” moment, that the dividends it pays in repeat viewing (or in knowing what it’s up to) are quite restricted. Compare The Sixth Sense to Fight Club, which is doing something very similar in that respect, and the latter’s impact is dented not at all when you know, and when you return to it knowing, mostly because Fincher has a whole lot going on in the picture, and the side that’s reliant on the reveal becomes more rather than less fascinating as a consequence.

Shyamalan’s screenplay for The Sixth Sense, rather than being stuffed, is very spartan, like much of his work; the film is designed to imbue atmosphere and expectancy, pregnant with a revealed or development that will blind side you. In that respect, I still think he’s a first-rate director, one with a distinctively assured style who is refreshingly dedicated to letting his material breathe. The flip side is that as a writer he could often use a whole lot of help, and there often isn’t much that’s very rewarding emotionally from his pictures; they’re rather glib, offering empty calorie catharsis through characters’ arcs or journeys entirely wrapped up in those scrupulously designed twists.

That assessment may be antithetical to most viewers’ takeaway of his best movies; because he spends so much time focussed on his actors, it may seem at first glance that he’s great with character but you’d be hard pressed to identify much about them from his movies – a recent Hollywood Reporter piece claimed the movie’s real achievement was making “a family drama first and a scary movie second” but that simply isn’t the case; its greatest achievement was making the twist factor currency, and when you take that away, the dramatics are somewhat torturous and heavy handed.

But that detachment might be why he’s a gift to someone like Bruce Willis in his later, humour bypass, frowning mode. He’s ideal for The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, where his studied impassivity is the nuts and bolts of those characters. Just let him look stern/ moody/ contemplative for two hours. I mean, Bruce is fine in M Night’s movies, but aside from the last gasp of his rug period, there’s nothing much to take away from his performance as Malcolm Crowe; Crowe’s oblivious to his state of passing and needs a prod from Haley Joel Osment’s Cole, and all Bruce needs to do is look vaguely perplexed.

One can draw parallels between Patrick Swayze in Ghost, aware of his recently deceased state and trying to communicate from the beyond, and Bruce’s more symbolic – I hesitate to say thematic, as this is very much literal; he can’t let go of his and Olivia Williams’ lost relationship so he’s become a ghost to her, there’s nothing subtle there – role, but I think the key that differentiates them is the vitality of Jerry Zucker’s movie and introverted, buttoned-down flow of Shyamalan’s. Bruce’s fate doesn’t really resonate beyond the gasp it gives the audience.

Much more successful is the relationship drawn between Cole and his mother (Toni Collette, recently headliner of another shock twist movie Hereditary, but as unhinged there as she is restrained here). It’s much easier to recognise the quality of Collette’s performance as a confused and fraught mother in retrospective than it is Osment’s, who attracted all the raves and was, for a brief period, a kind of preternatural variant on Macauley Culkin, subsequently in demand for another half decade. The problem with Osment, though, is that he was an almost too technically-accomplished child actor, when often what you want is a performance a little less varnished and so more truthful. He hits every necessary beat in The Sixth Sense, but he’s often underlying, capitalising and adding exclamation marks to each point too.

Shyamalan knows exactly what he’s doing with the horror here, of course, eliciting the necessary anticipation and dread from scenes, and as such it’s a much more satisfying mainstream horror concoction – as in, for those who don’t necessarily usually go and see such genre movies – than the same year’s The Blair Witch Project, both of which thrived on a must-see cachet. That doesn’t prevent it from coming across as overtly schematic and reverse-engineered. Is it fair to complain that a picture predicated on first viewing potency doesn’t hold up that well? I’d say it’s indicative of where its strengths and weaknesses lie; if Malcolm wasn’t by necessity a character half-formed through the need to reveal, and Cole defined by his withholding – only with Cole’s mum do you see what you get – the picture might have retained the longevity of an enduring classic (but maybe I’m out of touch, and thatishow it’s perceived. I’m always mystified – particularly during this year of twentieth anniversary of 1999 retrospectives – when The Blair Witch Project is cited as a masterpiece).

On a budget of just $40m, The Sixth Sense became the second biggest film of the year after The Phantom Menace (which cost three times as much), with a $673m take; it even had unheard of increasesin its fifth and sixth weekend grosses (spending five weeks in the top slot), the true mark of a word-of-mouth sleeper. And amongst the Best Picture hopefuls, it was the third highest grossing of its decade, the silver and gold going to actual prize winners Forrest Gump and Titanic. Of course, Shyamalan’s movie had a very significant factor going against the movie’s hopes, as supernatural horror fare (the subsequent likes of The Return of the King and The Shape of Water are more comfortably fantasy – also hitherto shunned – while the prior The Silence of the Lambs is more a thriller). In that respect, you probably have to go back to The Exorcist for a parallel. And recognition of a picture still alive in the public consciousness in a manner I don’t think The Sixth Sense quite is (except as an abiding entry in the greatest twist movies ever lists).


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.