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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).


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