Here’s another one where I’ve decided on a different tact as opposed to the pre-existing text I’d written. I don’t recall what the assignment was but I originally wrote a comparison between The Sixth Sense and American Beauty as they were best picture nominees. I’ve decided to edit that such that I only discuss The Sixth Sense and why it won the BAM Award for Best Picture of 1999. As I recently stated in the site’s first official piece on Django Unchained all the Best Picture winners should have write-ups and to that end, those that do not yet will get their due in December. However, since I decided to focus on the work of M. Night Shyamalan this week, I may as well post it now.
Overly-Cautious Warning: If you’ve never seen this film stop what you’re doing right now and go see it. I do spoil it eventually in this analysis.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
When I first saw the trailer to The Sixth Sense I knew I wanted to see it. I thought it was going to be one of “My Movies,” meaning no one but me would like it. There was a sneak preview a week before the nationwide release. My family and I got our tickets early via Moviefone. Thank goodness we did because there were many people walking up to the box office wanting to see it and being turned away because it was sold out. That was a good sign.
The film spent five weeks at #1 at the box office. I then started to hear the Oscar buzz stirring. After the Golden Globes and SAG Awards it didn’t seem likely it would do much at the Oscars. It didn’t. That doesn’t make it right, though. However, that’s why I had started the BAM Awards in the first place.
The Sixth Sense starts slowly but builds upon detail, one thing that give it a boost is amazing ensemble acting. The role of Cole’s mother is played by Toni Collette, an Australian actress. She had her Philly accent down so well I believed it was authentic at the time. She’s a very caring, playful mother but there’s also anger, fear and worry in her performance.
If you want character development this film is definitely for you, it’s not a concept-only piece. It has a strong and fairly high concept, but there is a lot of character to it. You are thrown into the life of Malcolm Crow (Bruce Willis) immediately. There is a confrontation in the first few minutes. This confrontation ends up being pivotal in the rest of the story. Then a year later he meets a boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). From that moment forward there is rarely a moment when one of them isn’t on screen.
Films of a supernatural nature like this one often have underlying messages and present real questions. These movies, like horror fiction, are generally frowned upon. This may be another reason it didn’t win at the Oscars. If that’s so, it’s not justified.
In my estimation, Haley Joel Osment is not a supporting actor in this movie, he is the lead. Just like Joseph Cross wasn’t a supporting actor in Shyamalan’s previous film Wide Awake. Bruce Willis like Rosie O’Donnell prior sold the film. While Crow starts and ends the movie, a vast majority of it is dealing with Cole and his issues. You can argue Crow is a lead based on perspective, but if you’re talking screen time and, more importantly, who faces and ultimately overcomes their obstacles it’s Cole.
Osment’s performance is incredible. The best acting is when you believe it’s happening and he sold it to you and you bought it because it’s real. He’s genuinely afraid. He’s shy and awkward when necessary and his suffering reaches off screen and wrenches your guts. In one scene when the thermostat drops and his breath vaporizes, I felt cold. Osment’s performance would not have been so amazing if not for the brilliant script. The script is nearly Hitchcockian in both its detail and the way Shyamalan is seemingly tossing elements up and plucking them down at exactly the right moment. The ways Shyamalan got everyone to believe Bruce Willis was alive then allowing hindsight to show he definitely wasn’t is both amazing writing and directing.
The Sixth Sense has subplots, even aside from the obvious ones which are the tales of the spirits that Cole sees. One example is the characterization of a secondary player: Tommy Tommasimo, played by Trevor Morgan, isn’t just a bully. His performance is typical of a bully when it has to be, but in his character’s cough syrup commercial it’s commercial acting and satirical. It also gives the audience good comic relief. Tommy in the end of his narrative is comedic and dejected. He becomes and inside joke between Cole and Malcolm. Another storytelling interlude goes as follows: In a classroom scene where the school grounds were the sight of hangings. His teacher denies the fact. Then Cole starts to yell calling him by his boyhood nickname. It’s very intense and serves as momentary comic relief as well. We empathize with Cole for it, and who wouldn’t want to know their teacher was called ‘Stuttering Stanley’? We see the hanged bodies later and perceptive viewers are awed, those who miss the connection will be frightened regardless. It works on two levels.
That’s what most of the brilliance of the script and the film is: connection. Cole’s mother is cleaning and she notices some spots shining in the pictures. All we see her do is questioningly look at it. Later, when Cole tells her his secret she believes him deep down. The proof is given after. That too is a subplot. It’s a movie of such intricacies but it works because of its intimacy. There aren’t too many characters in it. The movie deals realistically with the supernatural. There is a psychologist involved with the boy. Cole at one point is in the hospital and the doctor questions his mother about the bruises on his body. This is a societal critique, but a subdued one and a welcome one. Both her and the therapist are in the room and disgusted by these accusations. They don’t see each other. We don’t know that though.
The crumbling marriage of Malcolm Crow is also a pivotal part of the puzzle. This also works brilliantly as an illusion. The best illusions are the ones we believe to be true. He and his wife never speak to each other anymore. She is with another man and Malcolm never quite chases him down. What’s crucial is when Malcolm comes to the restaurant late. She signs the check says “Happy anniversary” and leaves. This is so key because we think she is talking to him. She wasn’t and what’s best is the way all the pieces fit together and nothing is really out of place.
The film also expertly foreshadows after re-viewing The Sixth Sense you see how it was set up all the way through the movie and you wonder how everyone took the bait, but we did. The ending was a shock. Nothing in The Sixth Sense seems forced or out of place. It all comes together in the end and it moves me. Cole asks, “Grandma says the answer is ‘everyday.’ What’s the question, Mama?” His mom is on the brink of tears and puts her hand on her chest, “Do I make her proud?” This is something we can all identify with. I got teary-eyed just thinking about it. I went to see it again with my cousins in Brazil. They all loved it. It’s truly a universal movie and now fourteen years on this films has not waned in my eyes, not in the slightest. It’s tremendous.
The Sixth Sense was nominated for 10 BAM Awards, and won seven.
The wins were in the following categories:
Best Performance by a Child Actor – Haley Joel Osment
Best Supporting Actress – Toni Collette
Best Score – James Newton Howard
The Other Nominations were for:
Best Original Screenplay – M. Night Shyamalan
Best Cinematography – Tak Fujimoto
Best Supporting Actor – Bruce Willis