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The Sixth Sense (1999)

by The Movie Diorama

The Sixth Sense exploits the helpless afterlife for an extrasensory psychological family drama. “I see dead people”, confesses a young and vulnerable Cole. The iconic line of dialogue that surrounds itself with metaphysical delusions, connecting the supernatural with reality. He continues, “they don’t know they’re dead”. Ghostly apparitions haunting the streets of Philadelphia, endlessly searching for resolution, realignment and reconciliation. Seemingly, no other soul has this additional sense.

Only Cole, an unsociable fragile child whose physical harm and emotional distress fractures the familial bond with his exhausted single mother. Unable to confide in her, he befriends a determined child psychologist, Malcolm. Yearning to rectify the failure from his previous patient whom committed suicide right before his glazed eyes, Malcolm urges Cole to find a purpose for his cursed blessing and enable wandering spirits to achieve absolution. Psychologically mending his fear and the splinted relationship with his mother in the process.

Shyamalan’s legendary 90s supernatural thriller is often classified as a horror. Such a description diminishes the psychological exploration at the heart of this family drama, shifting the audience’s perception entirely. ‘The Sixth Sense’, unequivocally, is an accessible insight into loss and deterioration. Loss of life. Deteriorating relationships. Weakened mentalities. A thriller that intelligently exploits esotericism as a plot device to strengthen its characters, almost reaching the adolescent depths of a coming-of-age tale.

Arguably, the central narrative and focus is pinpointed on Cole and Lynn’s fatigued bond, personally the highlight of the feature. The rapidly growing intensity as Cole’s hauntings increase in severity, alluding to connotations of child abuse, propels both characters to better each other. Accompanied by two outstanding performances from Osment and Collette, whom essentially carry the entire story on their shoulders. Both actors enhance their characterised perspective of the situation, Cole with his frightening ability and Lynn who cannot comprehend her own son’s vivid imagination. The exquisitely staged arguments and reluctant embraces become more tense, until their final scene together which just happens to be Shyamalan’s most magnificently directed sequence ever. No score. No sound effects. Just a mother and her son understanding each other in a car, providing that much required context for familial strength. Sensational.

Shyamalan surprisingly matches that quality throughout, with several one take sequences and innovative reflection shots to showcase his capabilities to the rest of Hollywood. These technical merits help entice viewers into the unknown, where Shyamalan then inserts his trademark plot twist.

Yes, the plot twist of all twists. One of the most discussed, imitated and influential endings in cinematic history. The conclusive five minutes that would catapult Shyamalan’s career into the stratosphere. Despite this being my first viewing, unfortunately Internet culture and general word-of-mouth revealed its twisted nature, undoubtedly lessening its impact.

Regardless, the problem ‘The Sixth Sense’ withholds, is continuity errors. Without revealing the surprise (despite all of you knowing it by now…), certain conditions indicate when a ghost is within the radius of Cole, such as the temperature lowering to freezing capabilities. This condition is completely disregarded for the character the plot twist concerns, as is the absence of blood from the frontal wound. Shyamalan does his best to masquerade these obvious indicators to strengthen the shocking conclusion. Yet, instead of pushing me to exclaim “oh wow!”, it made me mutter “hang on, wait a minute…”. These subtle manipulations may seem irrelevant to the overall story, however undeniably places a thinly woven veil of deception over the viewer’s eyes by disregarding its own rules.

Due to the upkeep of this twist, the secondary narrative involving Malcolm and the reconciliation with his wife suffered from minimal onscreen chemistry. Willis and Williams were perfectly fine in the feature, yet their purposefully distant characters failed to provide any emotional surge and proved the primary plot as the more investable story. Oh, and only one jump scare was counted, so not bad at all!

It’s incredibly simple to understand why ‘The Sixth Sense’ was popular and successful amongst audiences. Its Hollywood thrills and ominous chills supplied plenty of atmosphere amidst Shyamalan’s progressive screenplay. And despite the continuity errors and occasional artificial emotionality, it’s one of those rare features that provides two completely different viewing experiences. Supplying myself with a sixth sense for future plot twists!