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Directed by M. Night Shyamalan and released in 1999, The Sixth Sense blends terrifying horror and heartwarming drama to create a masterful thriller. After the success of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan has somewhat fallen out of critical approval since directing Avatar: The Last Airbender(2010) which is commonly considered one of the worst movies ever made. He's also directed some lackluster films like 2017's Split. However, his work on this and other successes like Signs should not be forgotten.
Doctor Malcolm has practiced child psychology for many years and receives a Mayor's Citation for Professional Excellence. That night, a previous patient breaks into his bedroom. The young man trembles as he tells Doctor Malcolm that the doctor’s treatment failed. Before the doctor or his wife can do anything, he shoots himself in the head and fires at Malcolm. The following fall, resolved to redeem himself, Doctor Malcolm takes on the case of 9 year-old Cole. Reclusive and elusive, Cole navigates a difficult relationship with his single mother and friends at school. He experiences bullying and rejection from his classmates. Most strangely of all, he has an eerie sense for things that those around him don't know. Through asking questions and shadowing the child, Doctor Malcolm tries to break into the child and the source of his problems. Meanwhile, Malcolm feels increasingly disconnected from his wife.
Bruce Willis plays the sympathetic Doctor Malcolm, handling his interactions with Cole and with his wife well. Harry Joel Osment plays a riveting Cole whose eyes communicate as much as his words do. The Oscars even nominated Osment for Best Supporting Actor at age 11. (Unfortunately, he did not win.) The supporting cast including Toni Colette and Olivia Williams execute their roles well.
The color red reappears throughout the film-- in clothing, blankets, pills, and a recurring doorknob. It may represent the presence of death or blood. Another motif is the contrast between light and dark. Some scenes occur in broad daylight, serving as the interim to the terrifying nighttime and otherwise dark scenes. Similarly, jarring music creates tension while the softer opening and ending music represents the almost eerie peace the characters find by the end of the movie.
The Sixth Sense is scary because it magnifies common childhood fears. For example, like Cole, I was always afraid of going outside of my bedroom late at night. But for Cole, the experience is much more terrifying. Many children fear bullies, but Cole's bullies(besides being inherently horrible) force him to face an even scarier presence. Additionally, The Sixth Sense relies on minimal blood and gore, even staying within the PG-13 parameters. And rather than leaving the viewer with an “icky” feeling as many horror flicks might, the film resolves Cole's story heartwarmingly. The Sixth Sense concludes with an incredible twist that was meticulously set up and powerfully executed. In a poll reported by The Guardian, The Sixth Sense was voted the film with the best plot twist of all time.
Determining whether the story belongs to Malcolm or Cole can be confusing-- it mainly acts like Cole's story but on closer examination is really Malcolm's journey. This leads to the purpose of the story feeling a little muddled. Otherwise, The Sixth Sense is an incredible experience-- frightening, engaging, and clever. For viewers who can handle the often terrifying themes and sequences, this is a top-notch psychological thriller.
The Sixth Sense. Dir. M. Night Shyamalan Perf. Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment. Spyglass Entertainment, 1999.
Shoard, Catherine. “Spoiler alert: The Sixth Sense voted film with best twist.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 July 2010, www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jul/26/sixth-sense-film-twists.
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Have you seen The Sixth Sense? Do you have any favorite thrillers?