Monday, September 20, 2010

Movie Meme #3: The Sixth Sense (1999)

Movie Meme#3 The Sixth Sense (1999) - M.Night Shyamalan quote describing the appeal of ghost stories around the world

About the Movie Meme

The Sixth Sense is the third entry in my movie meme for 'films I can happily watch over and over again', and which I'm revealing one film a day over the period of a month. You can find photographic 'clues' to all 31 of the films I've selected in my introductory post about the meme here

The Film

Child psychologist Malcolm Crow (Bruce Willis) is celebrating an award for his work when an unhappy, and clearly disturbed, ex-patient he wasn't able to help breaks into his home and shoots him before committing suicide. A few months later, the disillusioned psychologist agrees to take on a child, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who has similar problems to the ex-patient he wasn't able to save. But Crow struggles to help the child, and finds the case dominating his life to the extent that his previously happy marriage now seems threatened. Can he help the boy who is convinced he is being haunted by dead people, and succeed with this patient where he failed with his previous one?

At the time of release the film was widely praised for being that rare thing - a 'horror film' that women were happy to see. So happy that many were going to see it a second time, mainly to revisit the film after its surprising (to most) twist had been revealed right at the end of the film. Much as had happened with Hitchcock's Psycho, the film's director begged reviewers not to reveal the 'surprise' twist, and most thankfully complied.

The film has received mixed reviews once its initial flourish of success was over. Some are now pooh-poohing the film claiming it is 'totally reliant' on its twist ending for effect, and if you take that away there's not much left. I strongly beg to differ. I suspect more of the recent negativity towards the film is revision of history based on the 'law of diminishing returns' that has become evident with M. Night Shyamalan's subsequent films to this, which was his debut. With each successive release, just when you think the director couldn't possibly release a worse film, he proves you wrong, whether we're talking Signs, Lady In the Water, The Happening or The Last Airbender. It's hard to watch any of those films and make the connection with this far superior piece of work.

Background to Why It's On My Meme List

I saw this film on its first theatrical release, encouraged by the enthusiastic press reviews and explanations that one should see it quickly before someone spoilt it for me (I wish I'd done the same for The Others and Shutter Island - both excellent films, ruined by knowing the twist ending before seeing the film). I came out the theatre feeling annoyed with myself for having been so stupid as falling for the set-up that leads you down a blind alley at the start of the film - a scene that seemed so fake, I'd actually issued an 'Oh come on!' out loud at the cinema just after the first caption indicating time had passed appeared. Others have guessed the 'twist' based simply on the much-repeated trailer that features Joel Osment's troubled character finally breaking down and confessing to his psychologist 'I see dead people', but if the twist were the only thing that made the film, as some have suggested, it wouldn't stand up to repeated viewings the way it does.

For me the twist isn't the main thing about the picture (and, to be honest, I think the much earlier Jacob's Ladder does a much more shocking twist with the same basic idea), it's the simple, clear and consistent story telling that make the film work. The needed horror touches are all there, and add chills down the spine no matter how often I view the film, but essentially this is a love story which, presumably, is why women flocked to see it again and again on its theatrical outing. It's a love story between a psychologist and his patient, between a terrified child and his even more terrifed mother, and between a man and his wife who realise their marriage is going wrong but can't seem to quite put their fingers on why. It's a film that needs a large box of Kleenex by your side because if you're not blubbing like a baby at several key points in the film, well you have a heart made of stone.

The main story is a fairly simple one, but in a world where screenwriters are usually writing their scripts on set as actors are waiting for the latest franchise to be filmed, it's one that has been polished to perfection. The central conceit may require something of a leap of faith ('How could the central character not have known over all that time?') but once you buy into that conceit the rules are strictly adhered to. Shyamalan builds up intriguing sub-plots that all carry the main story through to a conclusion that on first viewing totally shocks you, but on subsequent viewings reveals itself as the only possible outcome. It's never dull and even though I've seen it many times, if it suddenly show up on TV and I have other things to do I invariably find myself watching the end credits where I'd just expected to 'watch a minute or two to remind myself of what it was like'.

The direction is classy, without being too showy, and M Night Shayamalan shows remarkable restraint with his first feature film. There's really nothing surplus to requirements or any weak scenes that add padding to the script. Some may regard his choice of colour palette and use of the colour red to subliminally warn the audience that something is amiss as erring to the pretentious, but it works and isn't over-used to the point of distraction, the way it has been in other films. Even his own, now obligatory, cameo serves a useful purpose and moves the story forward.

Acting wise, everything is pitch perfect - in stark contrast to Shyamalan's later films. Newcomer Haley Joel Osment is simply astonishing in the title role. Off-screen in the 'Making of' he comes across as a scary, precocious American 'adult trapped in a child's body', but in the film he comes across as an astonishingly vulnerable and emotional 10 year-old. It's not hard to see why his performance, like that of Toni Collette as his mother, was oscar-nominated. The relationship between mother and son, one terrified out of his wits but not wanting to scare his single mother, the other upset at how ill her son appears to be, and fighting hard against all the experts who think she is exaggerating, is core to the sympathy one feels for these characters and the commitment we make to them on their journey.

But it's perhaps Bruce Willis' performance that is the most surprising. Leaving his cliched 'dumb action hero' persona behind him, Willis plays vulnerable and sympathetic - and it actually works! It would have been easy to overplay the role, and lose the audience in the process, but Willis judges wisely and his performance is never overly-sentimental, nor wooden. It's a shame we don't get to see him play more roles like this.

The (still) high rating on Internet Movie Database for The Sixth Sense shows I am not alone in finding this film better than its 'one trick pony' detractors would imply. I suspect that the reason M. Night Shyamalan's subsequent films have still done relatively good box office (despite the universally terrible reviews from both critics and the public) is because even with all the evidence to the contrary fans hope to see a spark of the greatness the director showed in this film, but then seemed to completely lose on his subsequent efforts. It's an astonishing debut, and an astonishing piece of work in both the writing, acting and directing stakes. It's just a shame that none of those responsible for this success seem to have gone on to do anything anywhere near as good subsequently.

Shiny Disc Release

The Blu-Ray transfer of the film is good, but not stunning. On the plus side, there is very little grain or digital noise, and no evidence of print damage. On the negative side the the picture is surprisingly soft most of the time. There is no director commentary track, which is probably a mixed blessing given the writer/director's penchant for self-aggrandisement, and the featurettes, which typically run at 40 minutes a piece are supplied in standard definition rather than High Definition. Director boasting aside, the 'Making of' feature does give some real insight into the actors' interpretations, particularly the short but remarkable performance from Donnie Wahlberg (brother of the much more famous, but seemingly less talented Mark Wahlberg), and an interesting argument between Bruce Willis and M Night Shyamalan about how laid back his performance had just been.

The UK Blu-Ray is skimpy to say the least but has the advantage of costung under a tenner online.


Steve Langton said...

Totally agree this film has a lot more going for it than just a twist ending. Unusually (for me), I got the twist early doors and found a great deal to admire here. In fact, this is my favourite Willis performance, and mother and son are both incredibly good. Also fully agree re the tissues, as this is powerfully moving in places and most certainly a film I never tire of. Nice write-up.

Ian said...

Thanks Steve.

As you can see I'm running late with my "one meme review a day" but hope to get caught up over the weekend. Finding the next in the series hard to write-up because it's so uncinematographic.