Before I talk about the 1999 best picture nominee, The Sixth Sense, I have to ask — is it really necessary to give a spoiler warning? I mean, everyone knows that this film has a big twist at the end and everyone’s aware of what that twist is, right? I’m going to assume that’s the case because, quite frankly, it’s kind of pointless to talk about this film without talking about the twist. I mean, the Sixth Sense has been around for 16 years and it’s still a film that people seem to frequently talk about. (For instance, “Why aren’t any of M. Night Shyamalan’s other films as good as The Sixth Sense?”) If you’re over the age of 20, you really have no excuse for not knowing the twist ending of The Sixth Sense.
But, fair is fair — THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
Anyway! The Sixth Sense is the story of a 9 year-old named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). Cole lives in Philadelphia with his harried but devoted mother, Lynn (Toni Collette). Cole is a withdrawn child, haunted by the fact that he’s constantly seeing and hearing people that nobody else can hear. As Cole explains it to his psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), “I see dead people.”
(And you know what? That line has been quoted and parodied a thousand times since The Sixth Sense was released but that’s because it’s a great movie moment. Haley Joel Osment was a great child actor and did deserve the Oscar nomination that he received for his performance in this film.)
Malcolm has some issues of his own. The previous year, one of his former patients (Donnie Wahlberg) broke into his house and shot him, while Malcolm’s terrified wife (Olivia Williams) watched. Malcolm feels that he was shot because he failed that patient and that he can achieve some sort of redemption by helping Cole. Of course, as Malcolm devotes more and more time to Cole, he finds it harder and harder to speak to his wife. In one scene, Malcolm sits down across from her and tells her all about Cole. She responds by ignoring him and then standing up and walking out of the room.
And when she does that, your natural response is to go, “What a bitch!” and feel sorry for Malcolm. Except, of course, Cole really does see dead people. And, as we discover in the film’s twist ending, Malcolm is one of them. If his wife seemed distant, it was because she didn’t know he was there. If she seemed emotionally withdrawn, it was because she was deeply mourning him. Everyone — including Cole — knew that Malcolm was dead. Everyone but Malcolm.
And you know what? Film bloggers like me spend a lot of time making snarky comments about M. Night Shyamalan and his twist endings but the ending of The Sixth Sense works beautifully. It worked when I first saw it and it has worked every time that I’ve seen it since. Even knowing that Malcolm is dead, it’s still incredibly poignant to watch him realize it.
And that’s why I’d love to have a time machine. I would love to be able to hop into my time machine and go back to 1999 and see what it was like for the very first audience that watched this film. How did they react when they discovered — for the very first time — that Bruce Willis was a ghost? I’d love to find out.
But, even without that time machine, The Sixth Sense holds up surprisingly well. Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis tend to get so much attention for their excellent performances that I’m instead going to praise Toni Collette, who does great work as Cole’s loving but overwhelmed mother. She didn’t get a great catch phrase nor was she a part of a huge twist but the heart of the film is to be found in her performance.
The Sixth Sense was nominated for best picture of 1999. It lost to one of the worst films to ever win an Oscar, American Beauty.