By Scott Martin
The Sixth Sense, USA, 1999
Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
What seems to be indicative of M. Night Shyamalan’s work, especially over the last few years, is his extreme attention to detail. Whether or not you appreciate his films is a moot point; it’s hard for one to argue that he doesn’t have a handle on what he does, and in The Sixth Sense, the ghost story that became a template for far too many films to follow, his detail-oriented direction certainly doesn’t go to waste.
Films like this only succeed, no matter how great the direction or cast may be, if their screenplays do; written by Shyamalan as well, this screenplay may be bold but is weighted by a slight amateur’s touch in the first half. Some of the dialogue is brow-raisingly awkward and (for those who have seen the film, which I’m pretty sure is the entirety of the human race) full of holes, holes so gapingly big that even simple assumption of what the characters may have done off-screen doesn’t help as it usually would. Some scenes are far too short to make the emotional impact intended and others are drastically overlong, but, once that scene hits, once Cole tells his doctor his secret, it’s a near flawless work for the next hour.
Bruce Willis plays child psychologist Malcolm Crowe, serving Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear. We met Dr. Crowe almost a year earlier, having been shot by a former patient in his home; “the next fall,” our leads meet. Willis sets up meetings with the boy, doing his best to rid him of whatever is the matter. There’s a subtle majesty to Willis’ work in almost everything he does; whether it’s gunning down German terrorists or being a jerk to Ross on Friends, he’s always regal. Though it’s a craptastic review, I agree with one point that Roger Ebert made about Willis’ performance, that “not every adult actor can play heavy dramatic scenes with a kid and not seem to condescend (or, even worse, to be subtly coaching and leading him). Willis can.” And it’s true; he gives Osment his space, knowing confidently that the boy can do it, and it works wonders. My personal favorite scene between them is at Malcolm’s office, when he shows Cole a ridiculous magic trick.
The thing about Osment that amazes me most isn’t his age, but his focus. There are adults who couldn’t do what this little kid did, and though he has some remarkably bad dialogue to work with in the beginning, he seems to so deeply believe every word he says that it’s hard to not be on board with him. His performance is so honest and so unjaded; it’s legendary work, at least in my eyes. Toni Collette does her usual scene-stealing best here as Cole’s mother, Lynn. Frightened for her child and angry with herself for not knowing how to help him, she makes her character both sympathetic and yet unlikable. There’s an air of hurriedness around her that she can’t seem to shake off, but it works (somehow) for the better. It gives her character that extra tone of “I sincerely don’t have the time or patience for any of this anymore.”
However, the special mention in the acting category goes to Donnie Wahlberg. Man, oh man, where the hell did that come from? Probably less than five minutes onscreen and it’s something I haven’t forgotten for the past ten years. It’s a true transformation and it shows his extreme commitment to his job. To barely be in the film, but to completely immerse yourself in a character and make him linger forever – or at least for the next two hours or so – is tremendous skill, and he deserves something more than a pat on the back for it.
The music hasn’t ever left me, either. I remember watching the special features one day and hearing James Newton Howard talk about Shyamalan’s specific requests for the score. He said he wanted it to feel like a predatory animal, something that hunts freely, and Howard achieved just that. It’s simultaneously bone-chilling and heartbreaking.
All in all, the weakness of the film is in the first half of the screenplay, and the fact that after you’ve seen it once, you’ll never see it the same way again. It has little to no replay value at all, except for the performances. This is going to sound a lot harsher than I mean for it to: it’s a badass party trick, but once you figure out how it was done, what’s the point in going back to see it again? However, the final result is so astounding and moving; I guess, if you like magic …
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com