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In Philadelphia, renowned child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) suffers a gunshot wound when a former child patient (Donnie Wahlberg) who suffers terrible hallucinations shoots him before killing himself. Months later, he is caring for a young boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a nine-year-old child who is socially awkward and confesses that he sees ghosts walking among the living. Crowe dedicates himself to helping the boy, though is plagued by his feelings of failure, believing the boy is delusional but it’s not long after that he realizes the child is in fact communicating with the dead, a gift he thinks Cole should use to help these spirits. But things are not always as they seem.
As far as the mystery of The Sixth Sense goes, there are probably few who don’t already know its twist and if you’re reading this, odds are high there are few secrets about writer/director M. Night Shyamalan‘s now classic thriller you haven’t learned on your own. However, that said, they’ll be no exposing any of it here and the ending will not be touched on, which quite naturally makes for one of if not the best moment in the movie.
Instead, what’s really important to discuss is how very good a filmmaker Shyamalan really is, and no matter how incrementally off he eventually became in the wake of his many films after this–trapped by the ‘big twist’ device he so perfectly put to screen here–The Sixth Sense is a technical and narrative masterpiece well deserving of the praise it receives.
That’s best illustrated in a moment still early in the film when Crowe has come to Cole’s home to talk to the boy, still working to earn the kid’s trust. Nevermind the sensational tricks Shyamalan is using to prop up his twist, let’s look at the discoveries in this deceptively simple conversation between the doctor and the patient.
At this point, Cole is not sure yet about Crowe, mostly not believing he is anyone who can help him. He’s sort of been down this road before, having drawn pictures at school that had teachers concerned and made his mother (Toni Collette) cry. Now he only colors rainbows. Cole is unusual, as we’ve already mentioned, but at this point in the movie, we don’t know quite yet why, only that he is highly introverted and intelligent. Also, as his mom’s suddenly notices when looking at a collection of photos of her son on the wall, a series of odd light flares next to his head. Curious.
So here we are with Crowe sitting in the family living room and Cole standing not far off near the large archway leading to the front door. He’s just home from school, still in his uniform and looks, as always, burdened. His mother exits the room, leaving her son and Crowe alone and the doctor invites the boy to play a game, one again meant to earn trust. He says that he will read the boy’s mind and make a series of observations and for every one he gets right, Cole will take one step forward until he reaches the chair and must sit down, but for every one wrong, he will take one step back and can leave. By the very nature and premise of the plot to this point, we all assume where it’s going.
Cole silently agrees and Crowe begins with an opening salvo that earns a step forward and then another, but before we dig further into what happens next, it’s important to consider how crucial this moment is and just how in control Shyamalan is. That begins with the arrangement of the two actors with Willis seated in a casual but authoritative position on one side and Osment carefully standing in the wide opening of the room’s entrance. The boy is utterly unimposing and yet has terrific presence, keeping nearly completely still, his arms and legs stiff and his head level. There is a mysterious quality to him that Osment captures that lends the character terrific wonder.
Neither actor barely moves, in fact, aside from some small hand gestures by Willis, only Osment makes fragile steps forward and back. The game itself is the key here and it’s well written, creating an unusual amount of tension from a scene that would seem naturally devoid of such, but more so, it shifts our perceptions about the outcome. With Crowe guessing correctly what Cole is thinking first, we are led down the primrose path we believe to be obvious. Of course he’s going to get it right. That’s what happens in movies. Our heroes are defined by their abilities to do things we can’t. Shyamalan uses the camera to enforce that, cutting to show Cole small feet step forward, signals that Crowe is as good at his job as we’ve come to believe and that this will be the moment when he ‘reaches’ the boy. It feels right and we are comforted by the predictability of it all.
But then, Crowe makes a mistake and it is that much more jarring when Cole takes his first step back, again made all the more visually impactful by Shyamalan pulling the camera back in a gentle swoop, making Crowe smaller in the field of view, a trick meant to have us perceive him as such. We are put off balance. Our hero is literally shrinking. That’s not right, we think, and suddenly, everything’s off kilter. Cole continues to step back as Crowe misses again and again and at last, Cole admits to the doctor that he can’t help, stepping out of the room. It’s devastating.
What makes this work, aside from Shyamalan’s outstanding direction and writing, is Willis and Osment. Willis gives Crowe some great depth here as we, for the first time, truly see him in action per se as a child psychologist. He begins the game with some fun, pretending he actually has mind-reading abilities by pressing fingers to his head and making some quirky humming noises as if he’s tuning into some greater power in the room. We sense that no doubt, this is a practice that has worked for him countless times before. It lulls us into believing it will work as well. Osment is also riveting. So young, he showes tremendous composure and maturity, wholly making us believe he is encumbered by a terrible weight.
The scene relies on its quietness and yet is conversely full of palpable energy with not a note of music, aided by Shyamalan’s measured restraint with his camera. The moment is all about deception and misdirection fooling us into one belief and yet revealing another. The dialogue is so carefully constructed, it never feels expositional, instead, allowing the visuals to tell much of what is happening. We can sense just by position and movement the shifting tone and the eventual outcome. That’s something special. Every tiny movement Cole makes registers like a tremor. This is a monumentally good cinematic moment.
The Sixth Sense is forever remembered for its clever hook, and has become so iconic, it has been parodied and copied endlessly. While most cling to that one final twist, there is much more that is great about M. Night Shyamalan’s most acclaimed film, and should be viewed again for all the real treasures within, including this moment in a room where a game reveals far more than expected.