I See Dead People: The Sixth Sense (1999)

The name M. Night Shyamalan has become quite the running joke in contemporary Hollywood, indeed a name that once carried weight in the thriller community has been relegated to mocking and outright avoidance, in so much as his most recent film Another Earth went quite out of its way to assure avoid noting that it was directed by Shyamanlan, wherein during his height as a filmmaker he could earn viewers purely by attaching his name to a project, even as just a producer.  This may seem almost impossible now given the string of terrible movies from the director, but when one revisits Unbreakable, or even Signs they can see an auteur at work who has been allowed free reigns in making directorial choices, even if some of them were less evocative than others.  However, there was a decided phenomenon surrounding his 1999 work The Sixth Sense, one that became so evasive in popular culture that everybody was aware of the spoiler well before encountering the film.  Admittedly I had never encountered the film in its entirety until yesterday when I finally, with a degree of hesitation, popped it into my Bluray player.  Initially, a little hesitant to embrace the cinematic elements of the film, I realized that there was something wonderful, in a completely eerie sense, at work.  This realization, would, however, not have come were I not completely aware of the reveal at the end of the film, which is made somewhat nauseatingly clear throughout the film.  It is not the on-the-nose ways in which I find the film particularly well-executed, but more so in regards to the more subtle elements.  For example, there are some notable choices with the cinematography and mise-en-scene that pay off in major ways by the end of the film, and much to my surprise Bruce Willis delivers a rather nuanced performance that calls attention to the major issue his character is facing throughout the film.  Of course, an argument could be made that these moments are far from the credit of Shyamalan and this might well prove true, but it is precisely this combination of factors that make for a somewhat timeless thriller, which might be ripe for rediscovery in about twenty years, who knows maybe Shyamalan will have found his footing again, or he will have made so many missteps as to become completely irrelevant.

The Sixth Sense begins with Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) indifferently celebrating the receiving of an award for his work in child psychology alongside his wife Anna (Olivia Williams).  When they return to their room after talking, they are stunned to find one of Malcolm's former patients half-clothed in their bathroom, blaming Malcolm for his societal issues.  Frustrated the young man shoots Malcolm before killing himself.  The narrative then jumps forward a year to show Malcolm undertaking a new case with a young boy named Cole (Haley Joel Osment), who suffers from incredibly intense social anxiety and depression issues following the divorce of his parents.  Malcolm, hoping to use this a point of redemption after what he deems a failure with his former suicidal patient dumps everything into his helping Cole, much to the frustration of Anna, with whom Malcolm is continually growing distant.  Yet, when Malcolm makes a breakthrough with Cole, who has been previously incapable of help from other psychiatrists he feels obligated to go above and beyond his duty as a psychiatrist, particularly since it is revealed that Cole believes that he can see dead people wandering about the world, in his mind unable to realize that they are dead and thus going through routines to fix wrongs.  Malcolm is decidedly suspicious of this claim, but, nonetheless, follows Cole through his visions, particularly brutal ones involving images of hanging bodies and violent gun accidents.  When, Cole begins describing in great detail individuals' most repressed secrets, Malcolm begins to take his claims seriously, even agreeing to drive Cole to a some what far off funeral to help a young girl correct her wrongful death, one she managed to videotape.  This endeavor causes suspicion in Anna who has become involved with her shop hand, as well as Cole's mother Lynn (Toni Colette) who has become frustrated by ungrounded claims that she is partaking in child abuse, as well as fear for Cole and his, in her eyes, unhealthy attachment to his dead grandmother.  When Cole finally explains in great detail what he sees, a series of events paired together make Malcolm realize that not only is his attachment to Cole a unique one, but his growing distance from his wife, might be predicated not upon this attachment to his patient, but a very tangible removal from the physical world.

I want to note that there are some problems of dated choices in the film, but one could make that claim for most every "great" movie from 1999, perhaps the most important year in film since 1976.  A few moments of slow motion filmmaking and sickeningly heteronormative narrative aside, The Sixth Sense manages to create an ambiance of otherworldliness without ever making it frustratingly clear.  Again, I came at this film already aware of the reveal, so my ability to pick up some of these directorial choices was indeed predicated upon this and I could not speak for a completely blind viewing of this film, although I would be quite intrigued to see a legitimate cinephile go into this film blind as to its narrative and reveal, although that is probably impossible.  However, I digress, I want to hype the cinematography of this film above anything else, particularly the way in which Tak Fujimoto makes the "non-human" entities of the film pop out against the mildly gritty posh urban backdrop that is downtown Philadelphia.  The film lights Willis in such a way that his eyes become piercing black orbs, indeed quite spectral in their essence and the use of the now iconic Willis scowl draws even more attention to this idea.  Never one to layer on the performance, what Willis brings to Malcolm's character through a barebones performance is an individual who has lost the ability to express himself physically to another person, which is indeed true of a narrative where he is dead and incapable of communicating in any way beyond changing the temperature of the room or through influences of memories.  Also, the manner with which the film is edited allows for a very, very subtle breaking of the linear narrative, at times even the most minimal of jump zooms noting the difference between the space of the human figures and those of the ghosts, undoubtedly, a purposeful choice on the part of Shyamalan who has never failed at creating suspense.  Of course, this film is also quite scary, although it does lull viewers into its intensity, much like Signs much of the film is spent anticipating the presence of a scare and while there are really only one or two examples of this in The Sixth Sense when they do occur they prove to be almost too intense to handle, an execution of horror that has only really occurred with perfection in The Exorcist

Key Scene:  The ghost reveal in Cole's tent will scare you, if it does not then you have a nervous system made of iron.

I cannot defend this film enough and considering that it is pennied out on DVD, grabbing a copy is a given.  If not from Amazon it is readily available at pretty much any place that sells media in its various forms.

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