1999 was a big year for films. Audiences were blown away by the groundbreaking special effects of The Matrix, the anarchic twists of Fight Club, and the overwhelming disappointment of Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace. But standing ground next to these blockbuster heavy hitters was a relatively small film written and directed by then unknown M. Night Shyamalan. It wasn’t long before the psychological thriller The Sixth Sense was one of the most talked about films of the year. With powerful performances, exquisite use of color, and one of the most iconic plot twists in history, The Sixth Sense is still remembered 20 years later as one of the best ghost stories to come out of Hollywood.
The film begins with child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) being confronted by a disturbed former patient (Donnie Wahlberg) who accuses him of failing him as a child, before shooting Crowe and himself. Months later, Dr. Crowe becomes heavily invested in nine-year-old Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a quiet boy with a similar home life and demeanor as the former patient. He is a sensitive, timid boy who lives with his single mother (the criminally underrated Toni Collette) and has trouble making friends. While Crowe assumes that Cole is simply falling under the same patterns as any child coping with their parents’ divorce, Cole reveals that his problems are far more severe. In one of the most memorable scenes of the 1990s, Cole confides in Dr. Crowe that he is constantly haunted by ghosts with a chilling whisper: “I see dead people.”
Haley Joel Osment as the haunted Cole gives one of the most powerful and convincing performances delivered by a child star. His wide-eyed innocence and vulnerability is a much needed emotional contrast to Bruce Wills’ somewhat wooden performance. Toni Collette also shines in a way that won’t be topped until Hereditary nineteen years later. She is a single mother at the end of her rope as she helplessly watches her son clearly being tormented by something or someone. Her final scene with Cole while sitting in traffic is the most well-acted in the film and is a surprisingly sentimental and tearful sequence.
Along with brilliant screenplay, Shyamalan truly strives as a director with the chilling atmosphere and subtle touches with color here and there. He uses red as a sign of the supernatural interfering with the mortal world, whether it’s a balloon, a volume knob, a door, etc. Shyamalan also manages to evoke coldness every time a ghost is angry. The temperature drops, breath can be seen, and people are seen adjusting blankets and sweaters. The audience finds itself getting cold just watching the slow, muted cinematography. Much like Fight Club released the same year, The Sixth Sense is a film meant to be watched more than once to see all the signs that lead to the astonishing climax.
The Sixth Sense set the standards for M. Night Shyamalan’s signature use of plot twists which would be prevalent throughout his career. It is no secret that he has had some notorious critical flops over the years including The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010), and After Earth (2013) to the point that he has become somewhat of a punchline among movie lovers. However, The Sixth Sense is an outstanding breakout film that encapsulates Shyamalan’s talent as a screenwriter and director. With its haunting atmosphere, intense psychological suspense, and sentimental melodrama, The Sixth Sense is a well-aged supernatural thriller that will prove to stand the test of time.