To dispense with formalities: The Sixth Sense is not that good, but nor is it that bad. Its writer-director has never been a man subject to well-manicured, non-explosive statements – probably because he has never himself been prone to non-explosive statements (he did, after all, cast himself as a writer who saved the Earth in Lady in the Water). In his early days, he was, to his followers, a filmic genius, a genuine auteur in an age with precious few singularly great filmic voices. In recent years, he has become a filmic landfill, a genuine auteur for evil in an age with precious few singularly awful filmic voices. Everyone, regardless of what they think of him, seems to not understand the meaning of putting on the breaks. Either wonderful or despicable, he is a director who inspires opinions of great magnitude regardless of direction.
To some extent, both magnitudes are over-stated. His recent slate of films have managed the insurmountable task of consistent awfulness, but he is not the worst director in the history of cinema. Still, claims of his badness are more fitting than claims of his goodness. Even his best works are, if we are being honest, merely solid showpieces for a frequently confused writer with a better-than-average visual sense that at its best moments manages to convince audiences they are watching a better film than they really are. Case in point: The Sixth Sense, which is a sometimes sharp, occasionally sterling, often misguided work most notable for the frankly bizarre fact that it managed to rake in almost 700 million dollars at the global box office. Being a supernatural thriller, mind you. Ahh, movie-goers were different in the far-flung past of 1999. It dances vision of when The Exorcist (a similarly overrated film, although not as confused at the level of basic writing as The Sixth Sense) exploded into theaters in 1973 and ushered in a new age of respectable auteur-driven horror films for public audiences. But then, 1973 really was a different, pre-Jaws and pre-Star Wars, time culturally and filmically. 1999 is practically still in the womb. It was just yesterday, or so it seems at first glance.
Apparently not, considering the changes in the filmic landscape since then. Imagine a movie about a doctor (Malcolm Crowe, played by Bruce Willis) helping a child (Cole Sear, played by Haley Joel Osment) who has psychological problems and may just see dead people from time to time. Now imagine that film being the second highest grossing film at the global box office in 2015, cavorting with the Jurassic Worlds and Age of Ultrons of the world. You can’t, can you? But M. Night Shyamalan did.
Not that he did the greatest job of it. Take the famous twist, which is haphazardly constructed and showy in the arbitrary way of so many puzzle-box movies ushered in to theaters in the ensuing decade and a half. It is more visually nuanced than many other ensuing twists, which at least makes it filmically worthy for reasons that have nothing to do with narrative or the twist itself, but the relentless focus on the twist has the effect of making the film feel a touch predetermined and dry. It’s no Christopher Nolan exercise in anti-filmic coolness, but there’s almost a sense that we are watching something simply so that it can twist and shout at us about the validity of its final turn. The need to arrive at that final, predetermined turn saps the film of any energy to move left or right, to explore subaltern paths, or to experiment.
Some of Shyamalan’s patented visual sense fits this definition as well. To put it more frankly, the film boasts a visual sense regarding the color red that is neat and intriguing but not nearly as clever as the film thinks it is. They serve as mechanisms in and of themselves, not so much reshaping the story or redefining the mood but existing simply to show off that Shyamalan doesn’t see in black and white. He does trick us, in the end, but it is a superficial trick that exists mostly for its own sake. It proves only that Shyamalan is no Dario Argento as far as “red” goes.
Not that the visual sense is entirely arbitrary. The biggest strength of the film is its very particular, sinister character framing, operating as a thick, sly undercurrent of loneliness that serves to carefully and meticulously depict the characters – and one character in particular – in situations where they are alone or nearly alone, and then to play on that loneliness even when they are in public. The net effect is a creeping dread and sense of suburban melancholy that wraps around the characters, making them seem – even in moments of genuine public interaction – alone and lost in their own inner thoughts.
This sly visual sense was, at one time, Shyamalan’s primary strength as a filmmaker, and despite their somewhat belabored obviousness, the visuals work to the film’s benefit more often than not; the red is, if not as clever as Shyamalan thinks it is, at least reason to believe he is trying. Not to mention, it works as a way to distract from the screenplay. That Shyamalan is not a great writer is apparent to anyone who has seen anything he has written in recent years. But even at this early age there’s a mustiness to some of the dialogue that doesn’t signal any great cinematic pen-and-paper voice . Certainly, The Sixth Sense doesn’t drown in endless exposition like so many of the director’s recent films, but it is a much better work of direction than writing. It suffers mightily from a somewhat troubled desire to be both chillingly frosty and warmly sentimental. The two tones clash in a battle of Capraesque mawkishness and diabolical Hitchcockian malevolence, ultimately tempering each other to a merely simmering room-temperature water when we really need a full blast of either ice or fire, take your pick.
Shyamalan, even at this early point, seems lost in modern society. He would have been better as a studio player for inspirational dramas in the 1940s, and there are times when The Sixth Sense seems more like a PSA than a film proper. Not inherently a bad thing, had Shyamalan committed to this tone, but he keeps lazily drawing us back to the vague suspicion that something about his film is meaningfully dark, traumatic, or challenging. The Sixth Sense keeps tempting us with horror, but the desire to maintain a safe distance, to be a “respectable horror”, makes it more standoffish than mature. It is a false quest for respectability, essentially, and respectability is something no horror film should strive for. It leaves The Sixth Sense feeling too tame, too curated, too normal, to ever really function as chilling horror, which might be fine if Shyamalan didn’t insist so readily on how horrific the material was. It is a film with a curious identity crisis, trying to find a home in both grisly, guilty chills and innocent social commentary on the nature of childhood trauma, but it never once legitimately melds the two or finds a stable tone other than everyday boredom.
At least the film boasts Shyamalan’s greatest strength as a filmmaker, which remains the rather disconcerting ability to pick talented cinematographers and throw the heavy lifting onto them (he is like fellow class-of-99 director Sam Mendes in that regard). Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (who lensed Badlands, possibly the most beautiful film of the modern age) was the only capable player behind Shyamalan’s later The Happening, a film whose title foretold its own disastrous qualities. He is best-in-show here too. Again, the red is a little too showy and arbitrary to work a a conceptual level, but Fujimoto puts on his best game face to deal with Shyamalan’s somewhat freshman idea about how to tell a story. Specifically, he gives the film the classical lighting of an Old Hollywood story that helps to place the film in the register it belongs – melodrama – rather than the modernism Shyamalan keeps trying for and wholly fails to arrive at.
In the end, The Sixth Sense suffers mightily from the nagging thought that it is a devious but hollow demagogue, better to think about in the abstract after the fact as a neat little example of cinematic clockwork than it actually is to watch as a pulsing cinematic being, which is probably its greatest takeaway for the modern era of cinema. If we truly do wish to consider 1999 a sort of divining rod for the culture of modern cinema, a year that boasted an uncommon number of deeply important films for the years to come, then The Sixth Sense is less notable for signaling the rise of Shyamalan than it is for signaling a certain trend of movies that want trick us with their conceptual complications to hide the fact that they boast nothing but conceptual complications.
It is also notable as an example of the modern trend of quasi-horror films that want to have it both ways. Works of faked darkness that really just want to be middlebrow works of safety, or, if you prefer, works of blasé drama that try vaguely and unsuccessfully to seem more frightening, but are far too afraid to lower themselves into the dark places of human misery they desperately ought to be excavating. Works that feel deadened and bored with themselves, possibly because they are about deadened, bored characters. Fine, but if so, they refuse to jump headfirst into boredom and into deadened humanity to elevate themselves to the masters of that style. Someone like Antonioni did wonders with concocting films that were so committed to their own lack of life that this commitment became a new life all its own. Shyamalan is too afraid to go all the way there; it would scare off some of his 700 million dollar fan base. The Sixth Sense is not a particularly bad film, but this middlebrow, stately quality to the horror keeps it from becoming too alive, or too dead, to have any particular cinematic voice of its own. Except, of course, the voice of tricking middlebrow types into thinking it is a more challenging work than it is.