Sensing Brilliance in the Sixth Sense

sixth-sense-oneMichael and I have been talking lately about the phenomenon of hating.  Of course, hate is prevalent in all sects of life, and more problematic in some sects than others.  But when it comes to the arts, and films specifically, people love to hate.  Witness the new female-driven Ghostbusters film: it’s brilliant and funny and original, but people get this weird high off slamming it on the internet.  The same goes for the Star Wars prequels: any attempt to re-visit the highly successful plot of the first three films was certain to be met with some contempt, because our proclivity to love has an opposite proclivity to hate. And I think the same observation could be made with M. Night Shyamalan.

Perhaps to the detriment of M. Night, his film genius peaked early in his career.  With brilliant  hits like Signs, and, the focus of this post, The Sixth Sense, M. Night became an instant cinematic sensation, known for his unusual plots and surprising endings.  I would contend that such publicly lauded originality and creativity is hard to sustain over a period of time, which is why his work became consistently less understood by the public and more criticized.  Mocking his career became common fare, and people united in their love to hate films that would have seemed semi-decent if they didn’t have his massive reputation to live up to (like The Village, and The Happening).

I’m one of the unusual fans; I’m highly appreciative of Shyamalan’s entire body of work.  Still, as I count down to what I’m hoping will be the undeniably creepy and fantastic Split, I can’t help but revert back to my all-time Shyamalan favorites, which by and large happen to be his most applauded works.  I would go so far as to say The Sixth Sense situates Shyamalan in the realm of screenwriting and general cinematic genius, for its creepiness, emotional weight, and flawlessly executed scenes.  While The Sixth Sense sits on the edge of the horror genre – to some degree, it’s more dramatic than horrific – it is, simultaneously, an indisputable horror classic.  Michael and I sat down to watch The Sixth Sense yesterday, and I intentionally reflected on why it’s so exceptional.  That said, I can’t really discuss this movie in full without revealing the famed surprise ending, so read knowing that such information will be revealed.

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To begin, there are two ways to watch The Sixth Sense.  The first “way” is to watch it the first time, and the second way is to watch it every time after that, because the entire viewing experience is different once you know the ending.  (As I said, I need to reveal it).  Bruce Willis’s character, Malcolm Crowe, is a highly successful child psychologist who, at the beginning of the film, receives the mayor’s award for excellence in his line of work.  Throughout most of the movie, he helps Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) who is plagued with an unusual malady that can’t be cured by pharmaceuticals: the ability to see dead people—and not hallucinations, but real dead people ambling around Philadelphia.  Of course, Crowe has trouble eliciting the secret from Cole, and then has trouble believing him once Cole reveals it.  Ultimately Malcolm does believe Cole, helps him, and returns to his home with his wife, Anna, only to realize that he is one of the dead.  The realization comes rapidly and unsettlingly, and is part of the plot twist that created all the implacable buzz about the movie when it was released and places it in the realm of all-time classics.  But the ending does create a unique problem for the viewer: the film is never the same after a first viewing.

The first time I saw the film (which I remember only vaguely, for it was some time ago), I saw Malcolm Crowe, a brilliant psychiatrist obsessed with and enmeshed in his work.  He gets shot at the beginning of the film, but ostensibly he recovers, and throughout the film, as I’ve noted, he’s fixated on helping Cole Sear navigate the petulant waters of parental divorce, bullying, and what he believes to be a possible mood disorder.  Shots vary, but many include Malcolm and Cole, or Malcolm and his wife, Anna.  The careful observer will note that Anna never speaks to Malcolm, but I chalked this up to tension in their relationship (to the extent that I noted it at all) and viewed their story line as an examination of a marriage falling apart because of one man’s obsession with his work.  In that regard the plot is rather typical; the workaholic becomes estranged from his wife and is torn between two seemingly irreconcilable worlds: the demanding home sphere and the highly demanding work sphere.  The plot goes so far as to show a budding romance between Anna and a man she works with, which we assume is because she feels neglected by Malcolm.

sixth-sense-fiveBut I saw the story very differently once I realized that Malcolm Crowe had been dead all along.  He doesn’t recover from the bullet wound that a furious patient inflicts at the film’s beginning; he dies, and his ensuing interactions with Anna become the interactions of a dead man—who doesn’t know he’s dead—trying to speak to a wife who cannot see him.  His story line thus becomes a really tragic examination of Anna’s mourning process and her attempts to live without Malcolm in her life.  The viewer should be tipped off in many ways.  For instance, Malcolm finds Zoloft (an anti-depressant) in the cabinet, and he comes home to Anna showering while their wedding videos are playing in the living room.  One might argue that watching old wedding videos is a common thing to do after losing a spouse, but I didn’t really question why she was watching them when I presumed Malcolm was alive.  The entire movie becomes different when we realize Malcolm is dead, and Anna’s situation, which is detailed rather carefully, becomes sad, and perhaps tragic.

If Malcolm’s death creates a full plot circle in the movie (he dies at the beginning of the film, and comes to realize he’s one of the dead by the end of the film) then Cole’s life forms a similar circle.  Cole is the child of a single mother who’s an amazing parent but works two jobs and doesn’t know how to deal with her son’s eccentricities – the things he says and does because he “sees dead people” (a fact which he does not reveal to his mother until the movie’s conclusion).  In the beginning of the film, he’s depicted as a Christ like figure.  Malcolm Crowe follows him, not coincidentally, into an ornate but empty church, where Cole takes refuge.

As Cole is playing with his toy soldiers, and crying out to the Lord in Latin (which Malcolm realizes when he goes home and uses a Latin dictionary to translate Cole’s words), Malcolm looks down and sees a series of scratches on Coles wrist (which are actually from ghosts).  These scratches may suggest that Cole is a Christ-like figure, since the persecuted Christ had wounds on his wrist from nails.  Indeed, Cole has all the makings of a Christ figure (which is a common archetype in literature): he has an unusual burden to bear, people don’t believe in his story, and he’s persecuted by his peers, who call him a freak.  In one intense but awkward scene, he even gets into a verbal fight with his teacher.  We see the climax of Cole’s suffering when the teacher calls him a freak, too.  Meanwhile, Cole has trouble explaining certain events to his mom, because he knows she will not believe him if he attributes those events to the presence of the dead.

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Happily, when Malcolm learns Cole’s secret, he suggests that Cole listen to the dead and see what they want.  After helping a recently deceased young girl, Cole realizes the purpose behind his power and is thus vindicated.  In a play about King Arthur, Cole plays King Arthur, the only one who can remove the sword from the stone.  The presence of the play in The Sixth Sense (which is the second kid’s play in the film—the first happens during Cole’s difficulties) officiates Cole’s turning point.  Like King Arthur, Cole is the chosen one (or at least one of them), one of few people who have his unique and remarkable power (we surmise that Vincent Grey, a former patient of Malcolm’s, also had such a power).

But the allusion of the sword in the stone emphasizes that Cole is no longer a Christ like figure in that his chosen status, now that he understands it, is a positive identifier, not a negative marker – something unique and good, like Arthur’s ability to remove the sword and his destiny to rule.  Not surprisingly, once Cole removes the sword from the stone, a hoard of children carry the smiling Cole off stage, revealing that his Christ-like persecution and isolation is over; with the exception of one bully, he has made peace with his peers.  Significantly, before the play, he has an intimate moment with the teacher who called him a freak (who we presume gave him the starring role) to close that plot circle, and we see a woman with a half-burned face (and thus a dead woman) putting makeup on Cole, indicating that he no longer fears dead people, and his problem has reached its final resolution.  This resolution is reified when he reveals his powers to his mom and convinces her by delivering a message from his dead grandmother.

Vincent Grey is the final perfectly sealed plot circle.  In the intensely creepy opening scene of the film, when Malcolm and Anna come home after Malcolm has won his award, the window is smashed open and the room is a mess.  Malcolm peers into the bathroom, where a quaking, almost-naked Vincent Grey (Donnie Wahlberg) is standing, clad only in underpants, looking helpless and defeated.  He sets the ominous mood for the movie beautifully by asking Malcom, “Do you know why you’re afraid when you’re alone?  I do.”  This quote is also a bit of foreshadowing, our first hint that Vincent, and Cole, have the rare and terrifying gift of glimpsing the dead.  Of course, we don’t know that’s the case with Vincent by this point in the movie.  He looks disturbed, like an offensive picture of mental illness, and he condemns Crowe for not being able to help him.  That’s when he shoots Crowe.

sixth-sense-threeThe plot circle happens brilliantly, because it’s only by listening to a tape of his session with Vincent Grey that Malcolm realizes Cole isn’t hallucinating when he says he sees dead people.  Cole often reminds Malcolm of Vincent, and Malcolm is tormented by the fact that he couldn’t help Vincent.  So he returns to a recorded session with Vincent after Cole reveals his secret.  When he turns the volume of the tape up, he realizes that, during a portion of the session in which he left the room, he can hear a man yelling, “I don’t want to die” in Spanish.  A ghost was in the room with Vincent when Malcolm left.  Thus, we fully understand the malady of the man in his underwear, and Malcolm uses his “failure” with Vincent to verify Cole’s story and help him.  The story of Vincent Grey thus creates another fantastic plot circle in the film.

The plot is thus brilliantly symmetrical; every element of the conflict comes to a perfect resolution, and the viewer doesn’t detect any holes.  Philadelphia serves as the perfect back drop for such a film.  Because it was America’s first capitol, and one of the oldest cities in the country, it is completely rife with history—a haunted city, a city of ghosts.

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Other interesting indicators further enhance the film.  Extreme coldness often indicates the presence of the dead, along with the color red, which is intentionally inserted into scenes when ghosts appear or when Malcolm Crowe (an unknowing ghost) is trying to talk to his wife.  But what also makes this movie fantastic is what is left out of it.  Ernest Hemmingway argued that the merit of a novel could be evaluated by what was left out, not what was included in it, and that observation may be true of films, and The Sixth Sense, in particular.  In one scene, Cole approaches an attic in an old house during a birthday party, and hears a ghost pleading that he doesn’t want to die behind a door that leads to an attic.  When two bullies lock Cole in the attic (which they call the dungeon) the mere glimpse of the old-fashioned attic door and the former presence of the voice allow us to imagine Cole’s horrific situation – being trapped in a room with a ghost – without actually seeing the ghost.  While we never get a glimpse of Cole in the room, we see his mother open the door and carry him out, a slow motion shot that shows her agony and angst.  These particular screen shots are powerful methods of scaring the viewer and building suspense; we know we will start to see dead people with Cole soon.  The eerie voice of the dead man behind the old-fashioned door is a telling, creepy harbinger.

Finally, the characters in this movie are fantastic.  A movie can be drowned or redeemed by its characters, and the characters in The Sixth Sense are incredibly redeeming.  Cole is bright, strong, and lovable, and Malcolm is passionate and selfless.  Lynn Sear (Toni Collette) is, however, my absolute favorite character.  From a feminist standpoint, she’s an excellent example of a strong female character.  She handles the difficult task of mothering a child who runs into a lot of problems with grace and class.  She’s smart, she works hard, and she’s endlessly caring and compassionate toward her son.  Watching the progression of Lynn and Cole’s relationship in the film – including its shaky points – is another fantastic element of the film, an element that provides the film with much more depth than your typical horror story.

In a previous post, I lament the decline of the horror genre, the fact that the genre seems steeped in formulaic movies with predictable plots and shallow characters.  My opinion? M. Night Shyamalan’s detractors can say what they want about him; he is one of the freshest writers and directors in the genre, and, as we witness the re-emergence of his career with the terrifying The Visit and the imminent Split he is one of the greatest hopes for horror.  Even when his movies flop, one can see, in his films, the consistent effort to be original, to see the world differently.  The Sixth Sense is probably the ultimate culmination of this achievement, but I expect good things to come from M. Night Shyamalan.

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Sensing Brilliance in the Sixth Sense

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