100 Film Favorites – #90: The Sixth Sense
(M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)
10 posts down. 90 to go!
In the words of the Ice King, primary antagonist of Adventure Time,
“When you have stanky old wizard eyes, sometimes you see things that are real, and other times, it’s like crazy crazy crazy in-your-face all the time…all the time.”
“The Sixth Sense,” as most of you probably know, is about Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychologist, and his attempts to treat Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a disturbed young boy suffering from terrifying hallucinations. Crowe is haunted by memories of a similar case in which he was unable to help his patient, who ultimately attacked Crowe before committing suicide. As the treatment progresses, Cole reveals to Crowe that he “sees dead people,” ghosts who walk the earth, looking as they did just before they died, but behaving as though they are unaware of having died. Cole is terribly afraid of these apparitions (and understandably so, as they tend to do things like sneak up behind him when he goes to the bathroom at night, or promptly projectile vomit upon manifesting in his clubhouse).
Even so, Crowe eventually suggests that, rather than fearing the ghosts, Cole should try assisting them in completing the “unfinished business” which keeps them tied to the mortal realm. Cole begins to do this and, in his new role as ghost-helper, gradually gains more courage and confidence. His work done, Crowe returns home to his wife (whom he has been trying unsuccessfully to reconnect with throughout the film). Upon arriving, he discovers that his wife is holding onto his wedding ring, which he surprisingly has not been wearing. Super Schyama-lama-ding-dong Spoilers: Crowe realizes he has been dead the whole time, having been murdered in the opening scene by his disgruntled former patient. Having completed his “unfinished business” by helping Cole, Crowe is finally able to leave the mortal plane and “pass on.”
The Sixth Sense was a great critical success and launched the career of M. Night Schyamalan. As mentioned four posts ago, it is one of only three horror films in history to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture (it was nominated for 5 other Academy Awards as well). Some might say the reason this film has endured in the cultural imagination is the twist ending, or the “I see dead people” catchphrase. But I’d suggest the film’s lasting impact stems from possibly the scariest element of the film: seeing a child suffer from depression and fear without the possibility of outside help. Lots of movies prominently feature ghosts. Not as many movies deal with the treatment of mental illness in children. The idea that a child could be trapped by the machinations of his mind to the point that parents and other adults cannot provide direct assistance is thought-provoking and disturbing in a way that no jump-scare can match.
On a lighter note, the film does raise some questions:
-If you’ve been surrounded by ghosts as far back as you can remember, wouldn’t you just get used to it? Not that that wouldn’t still lead to emotional and social issues. I mean, people would still think you were weird for constantly seeing and interacting with things no one else can perceive, but at least you’d stop being scared of the ghosts. Actually, as I’ve typed this paragraph, I realized that’s the plot of Paranorman. Also a good film, if you haven’t seen it yet.
-If the ghosts supposedly don’t know they’re dead, why is their go-to script, “Oh hey, kid. As far as I’m concerned I’m still just a normal person and don’t realize I’m dead, but MIND IF I SCREAM AND WAGGLE MY MORTAL WOUND IN YOUR FACE?”
-If Bruce Willis’ advice is to listen to the ghosts and hear them out…is that really the best idea? That essentially means Cole’s listening to a man in his head tell him that the best course of action is to listen to the other people in his head. If a voice in your head tells you he’s a psychiatrist and you’re now cured…does that count? I get the feeling Cole Sear probably still hasn’t seen the last of a psychiatrist’s office.
See you tomorrow! There’s a time-travel movie on the docket.