AFI Top 100 Discussion: The Sixth Sense

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AFI Top 100 Discussion is a series of posts dedicated to dialogues concerning the best of American Cinema as designated by the American Film Institute. Jon Harrison of A Cinematic Odyssey and I have been picking our way through the list since 2014, having covered eight films so far. Today we are discussing the 1999 (modern?) classic: The Sixth Sense.

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It’s Halloween (or at least it will be when I post this) so it is only fitting that we’re discussing a modern classic of the horror/thriller genre, The Sixth Sense. M. Night Shyamalan’s film tells the story of a child psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), who after failing to help a troubled child becomes even more dedicated to helping the next one, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) who sees ghosts intruding into everyday life. With a legendary plot twist and a remarkable performance by Osment, AFI saw fit to give it the eighty-ninth spot on its top 100 list.

Hunter: So this is the first viewing for both of us. When I think of The Sixth Sense, I’m sure like most people, I think of the infamous plot twist, and how this film is held up as the pinnacle of Shyamalan’s career that had nowhere to go but down afterwards. For me, the film was slightly underwhelming, even though I didn’t know that much about it outside what the plot twist was. That makes me think that this film must have been so much stronger as a collective experience moviegoers had back in ‘99, rather than a film on its own.      

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Jon: I share a similar experience with you Hunter, that is being underwhelmed by the film overall. This film is definitely regarded as a classic by many movie-goers which can undoubtedly be recognized while watching this film, however from my perspective I had no idea there was a plot twist involved in this film. It’s funny because I went 90% of the way through this film huffing and puffing trying to make it through this film, while my friend next to me just kept telling me to “just wait for it, it gets good” which makes perfect sense. I suppose while we are on the subject, the plot twist is almost clear as day now having seen the film based on its overall structure but you don’t see it coming, why do you think that is?

Hunter: I really wanted to keep the plot twist out of my mind while watching the film, but unfortunately it was impossible for me. As such, I was way more invested in Cole’s story and Malcolm trying to help him rather than Malcolm’s struggle with his wife. I already knew what was going on with it, and as such there was really no suspense or anything to interest me in that half of the story. I can’t really think of the film in terms of the twist, because there was so little film left after the twist was revealed that it didn’t really have much impact if you already knew it. However, I feel that Cole’s story, because it didn’t have as much relation to the twist, worked really well. I think Osment was very sympathetic as Cole and his performance turned out to be the highlight for me.  

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Jon: Understandable, Cole’s story was definitely the more interesting of the two plot lines. It felt like Malcolm’s struggle with his wife never really had a purpose in the film when compared to the dynamic between him and Cole’s which is understandable because it’s not the films main focus, but when you include the twist in the story it brings everything full circle for Malcolm’s storyline. Which had me realize that completing a movie in it’s entirety can make a difference which should already be a thing but I have a bad habit of dropping off films too early haha.

Haley Osment, man oh man, what a performance from him. He was able to channel all these different emotions that a child that young shouldn’t even be able to comprehend. It really makes me think about the debate how child actors “don’t have the acting skills, and it’s all thanks to the director”. Do you know anything about the overall production of this film? I can’t believe that this is M. Night Shyamalan behind all this film.

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Hunter: There are plenty of shots in this film of characters looking sad, and the shots of Cole were far more compelling than any of the wife. It’s not that I thought the scenes with the wife were a waste of time or anything, I just wasn’t as emotionally invested in that half of the movie. Furthermore, the actual substance of the twist had more implications for Malcolm’s relationship with Cole rather than with his wife. I think their relationship had a lot of poignancy, with Malcolm being the only one who can really help Cole, and in doing so, help himself.

With the sort of career as a child actor that Osment has had, it’s really hard to accept the idea that kids can’t act. I think he really does a remarkable job here, and that comes less from an analysis of what he’s actually doing on a technical level and rather the effect his performance has on the viewer. A lot of kids seem like they are trying really hard to act, but I think Osment is perfectly natural on screen.  

I actually don’t know a ton about the production history of this movie, but the reviews I was able to find from ‘99 were less positive than I expected…. I thought this movie was way more acclaimed than it was! I seemed to have had this idea in my head that after this movie had everyone proclaiming Shyamalan as a genius but I’m not quite sure if that’s the case.

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Jon: That’s quite surprising to hear, because literally everyone talks about this film and Signs as some of the best movies from the early 2000s. My dad always refers to Shyamalan as the dude who tried to be Hitchcock, which I could peep from the close up shot as the establishing shot but asides from that I couldn’t really see it in this film as least, perhaps due to my lack of interest, but felt more early James Wan. I agree with you 100% about Osment, it’s a shame he didn’t have a bigger career than what he’s done so far.

A huge problem about this film for me was the editing. There were far too many fade ins and fade outs; those effects took me straight out of the film, as if I was watching a TV movie, and that signified the commercial break. One of the best scenes of this entire movie was when the father was watching the tape of his daughter’s death. There was so much tension and intensity, and they had that night close up on the father’s face as he confronts his wife, but this scene like many other scenes in this movie ended too early. It was extremely frustrating, unless Shyamalan was going for the whole the viewer is a ghost who’s floating in and out of scenes, so we naturally don’t see everything that goes down, but I doubt that. There’s technically nothing wrong with that or the fades, but Shyamalan had some great emotions going on, imagine Dead Poet’s Society cutting out before we can see the father’s reaction to what happened on that fateful night. That’s what this entire movie felt like.

Hunter: I didn’t feel that way when I was watching it; I actually kind of liked the fades but I see what you are saying. I don’t really have much of a reason for liking them, it just seemed a bit different. I definitely get that that was a hell of a plotline with the sick girl to just drop in and out of so quickly, and I felt that as well. That honestly could have been the whole movie in itself, and the more I think about it…. Maybe it should have been?

I really liked the use of handheld in this movie. It was brought out during tense or fast-moving situations and it put me on edge without overwhelming me like shakeycam or anything. I also really liked the color scheme, with the occasional reds standing out against the browns and duller colors.   

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Jon: I mean don’t they say not to steal a whole movie’s plotline, but to take elements? Haha I think you may be onto something Hunter.. Interesting, that will definitely be something I’ll put more focus onto next time I watch the film.

Hunter: Yeah I’m looking forward to rewatching the film again someday as well. AFI put the film at #89, in between Bringing Up Baby at 88, and Swing Time at 90. There are a few movies from the 90s on the list, but interestingly I believe The Sixth Sense is the newest one on there. Removed from the cultural upheaval surrounding this movie, I’m not quite sure it earns its place on this list, but I’m not super motivated to say it should get kicked off either.  

Jon: I agree with you Hunter; I can definitely can see why it’s on this list and I believe towards the tail end of the spectrum is a decent spot for this film.

 

So there you have it, Jon and I both thought The Sixth Sense was pretty decent. The movie’s structure with the plot twist and everything might not hold up as well as one would hope, but Haley Joel Osment’s performance definitely does. What about you guys, our readers? Think the plot twist holds up? More insights into M. Night Shyamalan’s career? Please leave a comment and let us know! Happy Halloween everyone!

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“I see dead people.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert review 
The New York Times review
Vulture article on Shyamalan’s career

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