Sunday, December 27, 2009

1999 - The Sixth Sense

It seems fitting that on the same day that my darling wife Kat and I watched one of the creepiest films to be nominated for Best Picture that we would also experience our very own real-life creepy moment. When travelling home last night, we shared a train car with an obviously unstable man, unintentionally impersonating the grunting chuckles of Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade character. He proceeded to pull out a lighter and repeatedly attempt to set fire to his own shoe before smelling his fingers. The incident was perhaps made slightly less frightening due to the fact that the carriage was crowded with several other similarly bewildered passengers, eventually releasing a communal sigh of relief when the strange man disembarked ... Ah, the joys of the New York subway system.

Earlier yesterday, Kat and I subjected ourselves to the next nominee from 1999's Best Picture contest...

The Sixth Sense
M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan
Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
0 wins

In discussing my thoughts about The Sixth Sense, I find myself a little confounded. In a way, I wish I wrote about it ten years ago when I first saw it. I was one of the lucky ones. I managed to make my way to the cinema fairly early on in its original theatrical release with no knowledge of its earth-shattering twist. If only it were possible to harmlessly erase my memory before watching it a second or third time. More than any other film, I think, this supernatural thriller loses a lot of its tension and surprise on repeat viewings, so if you are fortunate enough to have avoided hearing of its twist and you have yet to see it (an unlikely state of affairs, I'll admit), I suggest you read no further until you have done so.

Now, since the rest of you are familiar with the film's secrets, it seems vaguely redundant to offer my usual summation of the plot. Nonetheless, to refresh the memories of those who may not have seen it recently, Bruce Willis plays child psychologist Malcolm Crowe, who after witnessing a former troubled patient (Wahlberg) commit suicide in front of him, sets out to help young Cole Sear (Osment), who is experiencing similar symptoms.

Nothing about that summary immediately suggests horror or thriller, thus exposing the inherent problem of reviewing this film ten years after I first saw it. As soon as I add to the synopsis that Cole sees dead people and that Crowe is unaware that he is one of those deceased, an entirely new perspective is placed on the events. And those two truth bombs are not alone in losing their impact upon rewatching. I remember being spooked for days by visions of ghosts appearing unsuspectingly, particularly the sequence in which Cole runs into his play tent for safety, only to realise he is sharing it with a young ghostly girl who proceeds to vomit all over herself. When you know this scene is coming, it is simply not half as fun.

However, this is not to say that the picture is devoid of worth in its subsequent viewings. It's just that with such a massive twist, there is no way it can ever live up to its original shock value. Unlike for instance, The Crying Game, in which the twist, occurring midway through the film, acts as a catapult pushing the story forward, in The Sixth Sense, the twist is the climax. Luckily, director M. Night Shyamalan is successful in creating a frightening atmosphere regardless. The use of breath sounds to punctuate the soundtrack is particularly inspired. Still, there is no doubt that watching The Sixth Sense with absolutely no knowledge of its content is the ultimate way to experience it. In fact, I would also have recommended avoiding the trailers at the time of its release, since they made it clear that this was a film about ghosts. But Cole's special talent is not revealed until the movie's halfway point, by way of the now immortal line, "I see dead people." Mind you, knowing that there are going to be ghosts at some point certainly creates tension and Shyamalan is clever to keep the apparitions off the screen for the first act, a technique well mastered by Spielberg in Jaws. Great film-makers are aware that the audience's imagination can often be a hell of a lot scarier than anything you can create on screen.

Crowe's relationship with his wife Anna (Williams) is probably the most affected aspect of the story on a repeat viewing. The poignant dinner scene in which Anna seems cold and upset by her husband's neglect of her is made even more poignant with the fresh perspective that she is actually dining alone, pining for him, not because he is distant, but because he is dead. Then again, there is a somewhat hard to accept logic in the fact that Crowe doesn't realise his own non-existence, considering his wife doesn't say a word to him for months on end. But I guess, in a film in which a nine-year-old converses with fatal fire victims, it is probably superfluous to dissect the story's foothold in reality.

It would be remiss of me not to at least mention the mature (and Oscar-nominated) performance of Haley Joel Osment. I recall that, in interviews at the time of the film's release, I found him to be precociously annoying, but it is hard to deny the effectiveness of his portrayal as the tormented Cole. Former New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg shatters his teen idol image with a raw and moving performance of a very troubled man. And for fans of The O.C., that's Mischa Barton throwing up her guts in that tent.

So, as I related when I began this review, my thoughts of The Sixth Sense are difficult to analyse. Ten years ago, I was genuinely unnerved by it and it haunted me for days. And, despite the fact that it undoubtedly lost a lot of its punch this time around, there is still plenty left to be impressed by.

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