One of my writing professors, Peter Christopher, who passed away in 2008, used to ask four simple words whenever there was a twist in a story. Did they earn it?
Too often, movies use twists when they really mean cheats. Case in point the movie Haute Tension when the protagonist and the killer are one and the same, even though nothing leading up to this seemed to make much sense.
The Sixth Sense earns its twist when in the end it’s revealed that Bruce Willis’ character, Malcolm Crowe, a Philadelphia child psychologist, has been a ghost for much of the movie but didn’t know he is dead. Malcolm was shot at the beginning of the movie in by one of his former patients, Vincent Grey (Donnie Wahlberg).
It was a murder-suicide as Vincent breaks into the house, strips down to his BVD briefs and tells Malcolm how “cursed” he has been since childhood. He pulls out a revolver and shoots Malcolm in the abdomen before aiming the gun at himself and pulling the trigger.
Of course, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t tell all this at the beginning. No, he uses an old Hollywood trope against us. Most movies have those prologues where a main character suffers an injury or tragedy and then it skips to months or years later.
And this movie does just that, so we think that Malcolm has recovered from his shooting, but problems have arose with his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams) as they have become distant. Malcolm has a file on a new child patient, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), only 9, but Malcolm obvious the boy is unique.
Unfortunately for Cole, he’s considered an outcast at his school. He’s the constant target of ridicule by a classmate, Tommy Tammisimo (Trevor Morgan), who thinks he’s the next Marlon Brando because he was cast in a cold medicine commercial. Cole exhibits odd behavior at school when he tells the teacher that the school used to be a courthouse where people (women and children included) were hanged. He also somehow knows his teacher had a bad stuttering problem as a child and was called “Stuttering Stanley.”
But no matter how much he tries, Malcolm can’t seem to connect with Cole at first and feels Cole may end up like Vincent. His home life is getting worse. He shows up to a dinner forgetting its his and Anna’s anniversary. He notices medication for depression prescribed to her. He observes her getting extra attention from a younger worker, Sean (Glenn Fitzgerald) at the jewelry shop she works and this makes him angry.
After an incident where Cole is the victim of a bullying incident by Tommy and another child at a birthday party, he is hospitalized for suspected injuries and shock. It’s here where Cole tells Malcolm that he sees ghosts. The only problem is the ghosts don’t know they’re ghosts and as he’s the only one who can see them, sometimes they get physical with him.
Initially, Malcolm doesn’t believe him but when he listens to an old audio recording or a session with Vincent, he hears a upset Spanish man as he increases the volume.
Cole and Malcolm learn that the ghosts are trying to communicate with the young boy so when he is approached by a sickly girl ghost, Kyra Collins (Mischa Barton), he talks to her. Later, he goes to her home where a funeral wake is being held. He is given a VHS tape by Kyra to show to her father, which reveals that her mother was pouring cleaner fluid in her soup. The poisoning led to her death.
Eventually, Kyle is finally able to talk to his mother, Lynn (Toni Collette) about his abilities. At first she doesn’t believe him but when he tells her something only she would know as her late mother told her, she realizes Cole may be telling the truth. He also explains why the bumblebee pendant is always missing because her mom has been talking it because it was her favorite.
And finally the movie ends with Malcolm realizing he’s been dead all alone as Anna is watching home videos and cries out why did Malcolm leave her. When she drops a wedding band ring, he notices it missing from his left hand. And then he notices a desk has been moved in front of the basement door leading to his office, which explains why he had difficulty always getting in there.
Brian DePalma once said filmmakers only show us what they want us to see. And watching this movie, we see only that. Take a scene where it looks like Malcolm and Lynn were talking in the living room when Cole walks into the house. Lynn tells him dinner will be ready in an hour. We think this means because the session will be an hour long, but no, she’s going to make dinner in an hour.
Another scene where Malcolm visits Cole at his home and they talk, Lynn is doing light housework on the second floor, while listening to headphones. That’s why she can’t hear Cole on the first floor talking Malcolm but it would seem to her as Cole is talking to himself.
And the scene when Malcolm shows up at the restaurant, we realize that Anna, in grieving, decided to go out to eat in memory of Malcolm. All this relies on good directing, good editing, good writing and good acting, all of which were recognized at the 2000 Oscars. Osment and Collette got Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress nominations, respectively.
However, Willis deserved a Best Lead Actor nomination. This is not a hyperbole. The whole movie relies on his performance. His role as Malcolm is far different than anything he’s done before. Maybe his role in 12 Monkeys come close. Willis is one of those actors who as Roger Ebert said of Chevy Chase “puts in an appearance” in most of his roles. Willis is stepping up and acting in the performance.
Willis has played tough guys, but Malcolm is a man who is weak and feels he’s only getting weaker. At the end of the movie when him and Cole have a breakthrough, you can see joy and happiness in his life finally. Unfortunately, this leads up to the twist that he’s been dead all along. But this goes along with how Malcolm has been subconsciously trying to communicate with Cole. The twist is that Cole was helping Malcolm.
Since the Internet was still in its infancy by mass use in 1999, it was easy for The Sixth Sense to hide its twist so long. Now, it’d be all over the Internet within a matter of hours. It became a surprise hit, especially considering it was made mostly for Willis to fulfill a contractual obligation.
Well, they said Orson Welles didn’t want to make Touch of Evil and next to Citizen Kane, it’s his best work. This was only Shyamalan’s third movie as a director. His previous movie, Wide Awake, had gotten mixed reviews and had been mostly forgotten.
Disney didn’t have much faith in the movie and sold the production rights to Spyglass Entertainment while still retaining distribution rights through its Hollywood Pictures banner. Hardly any advanced press was written on the movie until shortly before it premiered in theaters on Aug. 6, 1999.
I didn’t think much of it myself on seeing the commercials. It looked like another Mercury Rising. The only reason I went to see it was a girl I really liked in college suggested a group of us see it instead of The Blair Witch Project. I had seen that movie a few weeks earlier and wasn’t too impressed. And I knew she wouldn’t like the foul language in that movie, I was okay with seeing something else.
It is an impressive movie in how it plays with our perceptions of how movies are made and stories are told. I remember something I once heard a director say, “In movies, no one does the dishes.” What that means is, you don’t have to film someone washing dishes, but have them standing over a sink next to clean dishes. Or have a person walk out of kitchen while drying off their hands with a towel and saying they did the dishes.
Like DePalma said filmmakers just show the audience what you want to see. While people have argued how could Malcolm go several months without knowing he’s dead, well, Malcolm doesn’t do the dishes. Ghosts don’t know they’re dead, as Cole said. We also don’t ever realize that Cole is wearing the same clothes repeatedly through the movie and many of those same clothes are what he touched on the night he was killed.
One scene that is a good hint that Malcolm is dead is when Anna talks to a young couple about a ring. The way she speaks of it is a clue that it’s meaningful to her as it’s the ring she was given by Malcolm as an engagement. She’s trying to move on but can’t. And that explains her relationship with Sean. Williams was also snubbed for an Oscar nomination too.
Unfortunately for Shyamalan, such a great twist by an unknown director, ruined his career later as people were expecting more out of his movies. You would expect this resentment from a director who often cheats his audiences. But Shyamalan doesn’t. Yes, he’s made some bad movies but so has many directors. He really doesn’t deserve a lot of the negative press and ridicule.