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Sunday, February 15, 2015

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 11 - The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Sixth Sense (1999; Hollywood Pictures)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette

I just do not get Shyamalan.  He had a great start.  Wide Awake was corny and sort of Hallmark-Channel-Original-ly, but it had a childlike outlook on ideas of religion, skepticism and mortality that was simultaneously tragic and charming.  After Wide Awake (which wasn’t his first film project, but still…), he created what rates high on most film fans’ list of the greatest films of the 90’s.  The Sixth Sense was an astounding accomplishment in filmmaking.  Forgetting the “trademark” Shyamalan Twist for a moment it was just a great film all around.  Osment left a huge impression on the audience here, with a performance so good that the audience’s fear reflected his own.  To add to that he was entirely sympathetic.  For many years, the tale of the child with supernatural connections has been handled with the kid either being enigmatic or creepy, or was simply sage like and wiser than just about any other character.  In a few cases, they were also “okay” with the presence of the supernatural, never understanding what the big deal is.  Cole (Osment) is terrified of just about everything, and it shows.  It permeates every scene.  He is always pensive entering a room, always looks down to avoid seeing anything scary, and almost never makes eye contact.  It’s subtle characterization you rarely see in modern movies.

The very simple story revolves around a child psychologist named Malcom Crowe (Willis) troubled by a case that went horribly wrong who meets his new patient Cole Sear.  Everything seems to be falling apart in Crowe’s life.  His wife is distant and nobody seems to care that he’s there, nobody except Cole, that is, who suffers from the baleful ability to see ghosts.  There is a strange connection between the two characters that is sudden and, at first, inexplicable.  As the story moves along, Cole is helped by Crowe to overcome his fear and begins to find meaning in what he once considered his curse.

There aren’t many movies like The Sixth Sense, at least not anything of quality released after 1980.  It is a straightforward story with few characters told well through great performances.  It has no villain, no pointless subplots, no focus on any characters except the two leads and their interactions with those around them and no freaking comic relief.  We have a story that reveals itself quickly but steadily, with almost no exposition, with all emotions conveyed through the actor’s faces.  There are actually scenes with little to no dialogue at all, where we just experience the world as Cole does.  It’s truly astonishing how well this tale is told.

So what happened?  Shyamalan has shown a steady decline in quality over the last decade and a half.  The subtlety and sincerity of The Sixth Sense is all but gone, with actors forcing emotion, over-or-underacting or being just plain silly.  It’s the curse of the great filmmaker, really.  If you release your Magnum Opus too soon, you will never be able to make another “good movie” again because all of the other films you release will be compared to the one that made your career.

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