The Sixth Sense (1999)

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Weird how this was a major studio release in 1999 and in today’s landscape it looks and feels like anything but. An achingly personal portrait of haunted psyches and oppressive spaces that unfolds at exactly the pace it needs to in order to be effective. I’d forgotten how quiet this movie is, how utterly dedicated it is to the breaths between lines, the tension as the camera slowly moves from one face to another and how eye-lines and blocking are favoured in the storytelling over boring close-ups. If this were made in a different language, it would be celebrated as an art-film but as it is, with just the right over-use of that Shyamalan sincerity, it stays on both the accessible end of abstract and the critic-friendly side of the mainstream.

Shyamalan constantly dances with classy horror tropes but expertly re-weaves them into something more human, heartfelt and unexpected. The shot of Cole’s handprint fading on the table surface would be reinforcing terror in any other movie, but here is the sad emblem of a young boy’s trauma. The vomiting girl under the bed would be the insidious ghoul in any recent horror flick but in Shyamalan’s hands is a young victim given sympathy and emotional closure. It’s as if Shyamalan took the glove of the horror genre, turned it inside out and wore it on the other hand. The direction is meticulous and every scene feels like it was built from just the right amount of shots, not blind coverage. There is a real belief in the images here, a dedication to emotionally driven minimalism and controlled colour that makes every scene feel exactly as it should be. The film is so anchored on character that the atmospheric unease feels totally in service of them and not the other way around. Quite the trick.

The film commits to one tone throughout and every scene carries a sad weight that is difficult to shake. I always feel upset watching this film, not to the point of tears but because the pain of the characters, their unresolved issues and their failures are so visible on the face of every actor that it becomes hard to ignore. The performances are so well pitched. Osment puts in one of the greatest child performances ever, one so good in fact that the entire film feels like it could work on the strength of him alone. Willis seems content playing second fiddle but also manages to conjure the best aspects of his own talent by playing a ghost (literally) of the machismo he is so frequently associated with.

I’m pretty startled at how finely tuned The Sixth Sense still feels, almost eighteen years after it was released. Shyamalan knows to keep everything reserved enough – for the most part – that the whole film is constantly working on the two levels so essential to the film’s endgame. That twist, so tainted by its place in mainstream pop-culture, still manages to feel like an essential last piece of the jigsaw puzzle rather than a daft rug-pull slotted in for cheap thrills. Admittedly the script looses elegance in some key dialogue scenes, but there’s enough investment in the people on screen that when they do flat-out say what is so carefully suggested by the filmmaking, you can forgive it. This is a pretty terrific calling card flick that approaches its potentially dumb concept with an utmost seriousness and consideration that I really respond to. It works like a swiss-watch and carries itself like a classic. It’s current status can be debated but box-office leviathans and pop-culture juggernauts are rarely painted on canvases as small and deliberate as this.

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