Has there ever been a more spectacular fall than M Night Shyamalan? His career seems to have taken the opposite curve to most directors. Bursting onto the scene with a revelatory and clever supernatural thriller, his work has traversed a continuous downward trajectory ever since, cumulating in the dire The Happening which hit the cinemas this year. However, it takes a rare talent indeed to attract performers such as Bruce Willis for your first low budget feature - and with The Sixth Sense it was clear that Shyamalan was the most promising new director for decades.
It is hard, now, to remember just what an impact this film made on the public when it was first released. This slow burning tale of a psychiatrist helping a disturbed young boy shocked audiences with its “twist” ending. Indeed, it is possibly this twist that did so much to harm Shyamalan's career - most cinema audiences demanded a twist in all his films as they saw it as his trademark. Instead of being as bravely original as he was with his debut, he tried to pander to audiences requirements and ended up with the disastrous efforts that we have seen recently.
However, people who saw The Sixth Sense as a film with a twist did it a vast disservice. The film that Shyamalan delivered was, quite simply, one of the cleverest films of the decade. Alongside the similarly structured The Usual Suspects the twist at the end simply becomes irrelevant due to the emotional impact that is delivered in the film. Quite simply put, in terms of structure, style, and performance The Sixth Sense can genuinely be described as a masterpiece.
Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a child psychologist who has risen to the very peak of his profession. After attending an awards dinner in his honour, he returns to his apartment only to find a former patient standing in his bathroom wearing only a pair of underpants. In a shocking beginning, the man seems emotionally bereft before shooting Crowe in the belly and then turning the gun on himself.
A year later, Crowe is trying desperately to revive his career when he is given the case of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a young boy who is experiencing serious emotional withdrawal problems. As Crowe works more on the boy's case, and begins to break through, so he begins to realise that there are unexpected similarities between Sear and the man in his bathroom. As this realisation slowly begins to dawn on Crowe, he begins to realise his role in both cases - and it is going to have very severe implications for him.
Watching this film for about the eighth time since it first came out, I am reminded all over again just how good it is. It is the kind of film that restores your faith in the cinema - that this kind of film can not only be made, but also achieve such success, is somehow life affirming. For at no time during its run time does it ever pander to its audience. It never underestimates its audience, crediting them with an intelligence that is rare in modern filmmaking. Shyamalan is interested in delivering an emotional, shocking experience and he does not waver from delivering a slow, steady build up to his denouement - pacing the film deliberately, and ratcheting up the tension with a steady, sure touch.
He is aided in this by some quite simply astounding performances. There is not one misstep in the whole film, casting wise - and the result is a film that totally draws you into the world that is portrayed. Bruce Willis is fantastic as Crowe, giving a muted performance that is full of emotional punch. Just look at his face as he is sitting at the restaurant table, his now distant wife sitting opposite him, the two unable to connect on any level. There is no need for emotional histrionics here, and Willis obliges - essaying a performance of resignation and despair. This is astonishing stuff from an actor who is more well known for shouting “yipeeee-kay-ai mother******” whilst swinging from a tower block in a sweaty vest. As superb as his performance is, however, he is overshadowed by young Osment.
Occasionally, a child star comes along who seems to be channelling a wisdom and maturity beyond his years. We are used, these days, to child stars that impress (Paquin, Fanning et al) but Osment here is completely outstanding. Whether he is being driven to such heights by Willis' generous performance, or simply being directed superbly by Shyamalan, Osment excels as the trouble child. Like Willis, he seems to understand that histrionics are not necessary and he delivers an almost unnaturally controlled performance. In fact, it is almost ethereal to see a performance of such maturity from one so young. As an emotionally stunted child, he needs to reign everything in and he does this so well. He deals with so many horrifying events with a kind of supernatural calm, that the one moment he does explode, when locked in a cupboard with something that we never see but know is there, the sense of terror, and the overwhelming sympathy we feel for the boy is overpowering for the viewer, and deeply upsetting.
These performances are not the only stunning ones in the film however. As mentioned earlier, there is not one misstep in the casting, and whether it is the brief but effective cameo from Donnie Walberg at the beginning of the film, as Crowe's ex-patient, or the restrained performances from all the supporting cast, everything is geared towards supporting the material and getting the viewer involved in the story.
Special mention, however, must go to Toni Collette as Cole's mother. The word I have used again and again during this review is restraint and again, Collette follows this mantra to the full with her performance. Witness the way she breaks down in the car during the film's climax, as she finally realises what her son has been going through, the concern for him mixed with her own deep emotional upset at what he is telling her. This is powerful stuff.
Underpinning all this, of course, is the director's vision. The control he displays over the whole piece is a revelation. I have mentioned the pace many times, but it takes a truly talented director to develop such a slow burning script so well on screen. We are well acquainted now with the arrogance that Shyamalan can sometimes display, but here he shows just what he can produce with complete control over his output. There is no kinetic rush here, no great action pieces, or gratuitous shocks. The whole experience is more like a brush from a cobweb in the dark, rather than a sudden shock and is a lesson in how to produce tension. The way he moves his camera, and the way the film is edited is just masterful. There is a very telling scene when Cole is eating breakfast and his mother is busying herself with household chores. This scene perhaps encapsulates the whole film perfectly. Shot in one take, the camera puts the viewer right in the middle of the action. Shot in real time, it is simply impossible for what happens to occur, but it does - right in front of the shocked viewers eyes. The following scene, with both actors sitting at the table trying desperately to pretend the events have not occurred is deliberately affecting. Small gestures and facial expression add to the fear, but tug the heartstrings at the same time. The way the camera is moved from one to the other emphasises the disconnection that is there. They are unable to touch, unable to truly help each other understand what is occurring. It is masterful cinema.
In short, this is one of the finest thrillers of the last few decades, and really does deserve a repeat viewing. Knowing the ending really doesn't matter. Once you do know it, there is still a lot to be gained from the film - watching how it is constructed, enjoying the performances, seeing how clues are spread throughout the film, having your heartstrings tugged. Many have said this film relies on its twist but there is simply so much more to it than that. Beautifully paced, masterfully directed, and full of scares, emotion, and pathos this is probably the strongest film from a debut director I have seen. That Shyamalan subsequently threw it all away is a shame, but even if you have seen this film once before maybe you owe it yourself to give it another viewing. It is one of the few films I can watch again and again and gain something new each time. It deserves a place in everyone's collection.
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