director M. Night Shyamalan
The splash of 1999 (or one of them, at least) was M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. With craft and flair, the film was like a modern Twilight Zone episode, with the compelling story of a child psychiatrist, attempting to help a very troubled young boy, who sees dead people. And of course, the surprise ending! Which was a surprise if no one gave it away. Right? Both “I see dead people.” and the twist itself have moved on into cultural shorthand reference, while M. Night Shyamalan has become cultural shorthand for a one-hit wonder.
When The Sixth Sense came out, I, like many others at the time, were really impressed. Bruce Willis was very good as the Philadelphia psychiatrist, whose failure comes back to haunt him. Toni Collette, as the single mother of the psychic boy, also was quite good. And the other big talent besides Shyamalan that the film introduced us to was the boy himself, Haley Joel Osment, whose wise, vulnerable, amazing child not only delivered one of those great Hollywood movie lines, but totally compelled the audience of his character.
It’s actually Osment that brought me back to The Sixth Sense for the first time since 1999. In watching him in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), the kids were totally blown away by him. In fact, when he shows up in The Sixth Sense finally, Felix commented, “Hey, it’s my favorite kid!” Both he and Clara were really, really impressed with his performance, and when I thought of what else I could show them that he had performed in, The Sixth Sense was sadly the only other film I thought probably worthwhile.
Osment appeared in other films, but not a whole lot. He dropped out of the Hollywood limelight for some time so it seems, and is just now, at age 25, looking to get back in. Whatever comes of his work henceforth it will not ever take away from his performances in The Sixth Sense and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I would argue that he’s even better in A.I., but they are both wonderful, amazing performances. Child performers are such unique expressions, often some mixture of their own pure nature and a director’s ability to draw performance out of them. But Osment clearly had something truly amazing within his own abilities as a child. He is most remarkable.
I kept the twist a secret from the kids (though it sort of confused them), first asking if Willis was dead when he got shot and then “What? He is dead?!” when the “reveal” comes. I realized that another film from the same period that I was thinking of showing them operated on the same twist aspect (The Others (2001)) and I wanted them to see it as organically as possible, to see how it played out.
The film has its scary moments, though really, they are just a few, and occasionally just quick jolts. They found it frightening.
I found it pretty good. Shyamalan’s style is straight out of film school. Which is both critique and compliment. He’s very effective in his shots and sequences, he frames moments for punch, and works his story well. He also tries to layer in aspects of meaning in color palattes, shot styles, and other stuff that might inspire and engross hardcore fans.
At the time it came out, I liked how he used his native Philadelphia as his location, as he would go on to do in many films afterward. The personalization of that seemed nice and still some of the images, such as the car accident toward the end on the tree-lined street, have stuck with me over the years since I’d seen the film.
Shyamalan has become a bit of a punching bag for me since I began this blog. His films have gotten progressively worse (though I have managed to see them all, haven’t I?) I’ve always recalled The Sixth Sense most positively and, now I can say I still do. While it’s not a masterpiece of cinema, it is a very good, very effective piece of horror/supernatural filmmaking, far more tonal and atmospheric in its frights than in pure shock or gore. And he did get that amazing performance from the young Osment.
It is a fine film. Shyamalan’s best. The kids both liked it quite a bit, too.