Film Discussion

The Sixth Sense (1999) – Throwback 20

There was definitely magic in the air in the year 1999. Sure, a new century was upon us and there that fear of what the Millennium bug was going to do to us once the clock hit midnight as New Year’s Day began, but in terms of going to the cinema it was a year of brilliance.

The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, Run Lola Run; excitement at the return of Star Wars; Being John Malkovich and David Fincher’s Fight Club, while critics were fawning over American Beauty. Some of these films have stood the test of time and some of them have very much not.

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One of the most talked-about films of that year was undoubtedly The Sixth Sense. A fine year for horror, the final year of the decade and the century had also seen The Blair Witch Project grab headlines with its found-footage structure and mythology, but there was still room, it seemed, for audiences and critics to be taken along by an old fashioned, character-driven chiller, and The Sixth Sense would remain the highest-grossing horror film until the release of IT in 2017.

There was a real sense of revolution to a lot of films from the year: The Matrix with its bullet-time effects and use of Hong Kong-style action choreography; Run Lola Run and its use of multiple narratives; The Blair Witch Project and its use of the internet for promotion (this was the year the internet started to become a massive marketing tool for Hollywood), and yet the second highest-grossing film of the year felt like something from another era. It was slow, drenched in atmosphere and yet, despite being his third film as director, marked the arrival of M. Night Shyamalan as a major talent.

With Bruce Willis front and centre in the marketing (although he is one of four pivotal central performances that dominate the film), it also sometimes feels as if this marks one of the last times a film with major A-list star dominated the box office in such a manner, before franchises and IPs became the contributing factor to box office success. It is also one of Willis’ finest performances.

While Willis has always been somewhat classified as an action star on par with Arnold and Sylvester,  he has always had the chops of a leading man who can work other genres with ease, going from being part of a Quentin Tarantino-ensemble to starring in a slow burn character drama/chiller like this. This is a film that relies on very little of Bruce showing muscle or brawn and instead has him showing that he can also do sensitivity, sweetness, melancholy and charm.

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In fact, there is a subtly intense air to proceedings throughout, not only in Willis’ performance but also in the atmosphere of the piece. For a film that amassed an incredibly high box office run, it doesn’t rely on an abundance of ghostly CGI or over the top theatrics; The Sixth Sense is a film all about character and the smaller moments.

There are scary moments for sure, but they are there to service the characters and the story and are not a means to centre a story around. The eventual revelation as to what Cole Sear’s secret is may have been one of the most quoted lines from any film of that year, but it has never lost its power.

As Cole, Haley Joel Osment was deservedly acclaimed as delivering one of the very best performances from a child actor in a film and honestly, it’s very much true. Like everything else, subtlety is the key here, with so much of what Osment isn’t saying in his performance as the reason why he ends up as devastatingly brilliant as he is here.

While there are some effective set pieces that can chill the blood, Shyamalan relies on what his characters say, or don’t say, to further the story. There are moments of key silence between Osment and Willis, or Willis and Olivia Williams, or Osment and Toni Collette (devastatingly good here as Cole’s mother Lynn in a manner that I could almost write a whole review alone on) that show Shyamalan to be a great filmmaker in a manner that unfortunately is often forgotten about due to the high level of disappointment in some of his future projects. It’s easy to forget just how much of an acclaimed talent he was after The Sixth Sense was first released.

Yes, the film was heavily discussed due to that last reveal, and yet, as brilliant a moment as it was (and one that was very clearly thought out so it actually makes sense), The Sixth Sense is so much more than that final moment. It’s a sensitively told, devastating original work that relies on character and plot in a manner that Hollywood and the horror genre have seemingly forgotten about. The least revolutionary film of 1999 has in fact not only been seemingly lost in many memories but also been forgotten about as one of the deserved high achievements of that year, and that’s more the pity.

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