Action Heroes – Willis: The Sixth Sense

I’ll never forgive Daisy Donovan for announcing ‘Bruce Willis is a ghost!’ on The Eleven O’Clock Show back in 1999. I hadn’t seen The Sixth Sense at that point and frankly, after that, there didn’t seem to be much point. So I waited for a while before I did, catching it on DVD a little bit later. And while it was a massive pain in the neck that bloody Donovan had ruined it, it was also interesting to watch it for the first time already knowing the twist.

Quick recap – young boy (Haley Joel Osment’s break-out role) sees dead people and child psychologist sets out to help me. And, as we all know, it turns out that said psychologist has already shuffled off himself. So, what’s to make you bother with another viewing?

Quite a lot actually. First up, this was back in the glory days when M Knight Shyamalan was just starting out and actually making good films (before the likes of The Village and the execrable Lady in the Water). And he hadn’t yet become known as something of a one trick pony (always with the twist M!) or got too heavy handed (see preachy Mother Nature revenge tale The Happening).

And it was also when Haley Joel Osmont was still cute (he’s 23 now. Scary). And he’s so cute – it’s heartbreaking when horrible stuff happens to him. Osment does an amazing job at portraying a lonely child carrying a huge burden on his tiny shoulders, his doe eyes often brimming with tears. Despite it being parodied umpteen times since, the ‘I see dead people’ line is still powerful. And although his amazing performance of course eclipses Willis’s (child actor trumps aging action star every time), that’s not to belittle the big man’s turn – he plays it completely straight, and is both understated and affecting.

Toni Collette is solid as Lynn, Cole’s tough single mother, desperately trying to keep her small family together and also understand what’s going on with her son. Their relationship is genuinely touching, as both of them try to shield one another from the nastier things in life – Lynn from the bullies who plague her son’s life, and Cole from the terrifying visions he endures day and night. Donnie Wahlberg does a nice line in troubled characters (see also Dreamcatcher) and he makes a powerful impression as Vincent Gray, Crowe’s former patient, who breaks into the his home and shoots him in the stomach before taking his own life (all this despite only being onscreen for a minute or so). Olivia Williams doesn’t get to do an awful lot as Crowe’s widow, spending much of her time asleep, although she plays an integral part in the tight plotting. Oh, and there’s a vomiting Mischa Barton.

The ghosts don’t actually start turning up visually until a good 50 minutes in. And there’s some genuinely scary moments, from housewives with slit wrists to teenagers with the backs of their heads blown off. While it does sometimes feel a bit slow – there’s a lot of sitting around – that ending, more than makes up for it. Like The Usual Suspects, it makes you re-evaluate everything you’ve seen in the previous 100 and something minutes. Going back over it and seeing how it all fits together makes a second viewing essential and a third and fourth one still rewarding. Shyamalan handles it masterfully – and (so I’m told) even if you do start to suspect that Brucie may actually be a tad incorporeal, he quickly convinces you otherwise as your brain wrongly fills in the gaps. A case in point is the restaurant scene where Malcolm goes to meet his wife for their anniversary dinner. On the surface it looks like a troubled couple in a last ditch attempt to save their marriage. In hindsight, when you realise that she can’t see him, it’s brilliantly executed. And you may think that Cole’s mum and the doctor talk to each other, but a second viewing will show you that there’s actually no interaction at all.

But there’s other reasons for why it holds up so well on further viewings. Much of it’s down to the fact that it’s not a straight good-vs-evil/living-vs-dead STORY. It’s also about human relationships and the loneliness and isolation that can so easily happen in them. It’s this, along with the performances that probably account for The Sixth Sense being one of only four horror films ever to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (the other three were The Exorcist, Jaws and The Silence of the Lambs).

Well worth another visit.

Emma Wilkin

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