The Sixth Sense (1999, M. Night Shyamalan)

Setting aside the twists and reveals, The Sixth Sense is about three character relationships. There’s child psychologist Bruce Willis and troubled youth Haley Joel Osment, there’s Osment and mom Toni Collette, there’s Willis and wife Olivia Williams. The film opens with Willis and Williams celebrating him receiving an award for his work, which she thinks is more important than him, as he’s been neglecting her to do that work. They get past the unpleasantness to some awards night amorousness, only for a home invasion to interrupt them.

One of Willis’s former patients, now grown up, has broken in to let the award-winner know he doesn’t help all the kids and shoots Willis for his trouble. Donnie Wahlberg plays the intruder; it’s basically a cameo but very effective.

Fast forward a few months, and Willis is still recovering from the assault. He can’t keep track of time anymore, including his first appointment with Osment. Osment has a similar case file to Wahlberg, and Willis sees helping Osment as a chance to redeem himself. Except Osment’s not willing to trust Willis with his secrets, including explaining his strange behavior at home and school to Willis. Instead, Osment just scares Collette, who’s overwhelmed and trying to stay afloat since her husband walked out on them.

Meanwhile, Willis’s emphasis on his work has led to further distance from Williams, who ignores his tepid attempts at apologies and explanations.

Obviously, the film’s twists factor in, but not in how the characters experience the events or how the actors essay their roles. There are four layers of Sixth Sense: Willis’s experience, Osment’s experience, Williams and Collette’s experience (they’re just girls, after all), and then writer and director Shyamalan’s actuality. What’s impressive about the film isn’t how everything comes together in the third act—the third act is a series of stumbles, in fact—but how well Shyamalan paces Osment and Willis’s relationship. It takes time for Willis to earn Osment’s trust, for Willis to separate Osment from his professional expectations from Osment; once Osment trusts Willis enough to tell him the truth about what’s going on, the film’s well into the second act. Everything in the film changes at that point, with Shyamalan now showing Osment’s experiences instead of showing everyone else observing Osment’s experiences.

It’s good enough to make up for multiple fizzles of the third act, where Shyamalan whiffs on resolving every single one of the character relationship resolves. The one for Willis and Osment is the best and only stumbles because Willis’s getting relationship advice from a little kid, and it’s not great relationship advice. It works rather conveniently within the boundaries of the film’s twists, but it’s far from a eureka moment. Then Osment and Collette’s resolution is too little, too late, too contrived. In particular, it’s too bad for Collette, who the film wrests through emotions without reward.

The resolve for Williams and Willis is the big one and… Unfortunately, Shyamalan overestimates the chemistry between the actors. Especially since they only have the one big scene together at the beginning, then everything else is detached. Given all Shyamalan’s constraints, it’s reasonably effective but not good.

Osment’s the film’s obvious standout. Until his trite resolution—which Shyamalan drops in like an afterthought—everything Osment does is phenomenal, whether he’s dealing with the usual—school bullies, sad mom—or the abnormal, like crusading therapist Willis, not to mention once the supernatural comes into play. Thanks to the film’s structure, Osment’s the only actor who’s got to maintain a performance through big reveals, and he ably does so. Without Osment, there’s no movie.

Willis is fine. Shyamalan over-directs Willis’s pensive reflection scenes, which works out thanks to Tak Fujimoto’s gorgeous, muted but lush photography, and James Newton Howard’s score. Willis rarely gets to do his charm offensives (Osment shuts them down), and, given the twists and turns, it’s not much of a role in the end.

Similarly, Collette’s got snippets of great scenes, but since she’s usually only seen from Osment’s perspective, there are some hard limits on her part.

Williams is even more limited. She’s not bad, especially since Shyamalan writes her as selfish. There’s also her unaddressed age difference with Willis, which has a lot of connotations thanks to how Shyamalan fills in their backstory with flashback devices; those connotations then inform her behavior in the present action, at the beginning of the film, and not complimentarily.

The film’s got some rocky stretches and some silly stretches—not to mention Shyamalan writes Willis as incapable of handling kids with real problems (it’s like a PG-13 story set in a PG world)—but the core relationship between troubled kid Osment and caring doctor Willis gets it through. That third act’s a mess, though.

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