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In Defence of The Sixth Sense

January 17, 2017

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A strange phenomenon is upon us this weekend: the release of an M. Night Shyamalan movie – in this case, Split – which has actually received rather positive early word-of-mouth. It presents film commentators with a challenging brief: Shyamalan’s consistency of awfulness has been such an inevitability that reviewers won’t be able to reprise the usual condescensions about his execrable storytelling skills and the spectacular descent of his career since the heady days of The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). Now that condescension may very well be deserved – anyone who has tried sitting through Shyamalan’s 2006 nadir of The Lady in the Water can attest to that – but the shame is that this bandwagon of ridicule has threatened to sully the legacy of The Sixth Sense: a film which really does deserve its reputation as one of Hollywood’s most accomplished genre films of the last 20 years.

The film’s grand conceit – the startling late twist – now seems to be almost the sole focus of debate when people recall The Sixth Sense (and not always in a complimentary way) but it deserves to be remembered for so much more than its narrative coup de grace. What Shyamalan managed so well, and what so few modern Hollywood directors have been able to pull off since, is the creation of something genuinely cinematic. The Sixth Sense was a bona fide storytelling and cultural event which honoured the medium’s origin as a form of spectacle and visceral experience, yet it still managed to be a masterful exercise in controlled, intimate genre narration as well.

Another thing that people forget about Shyamalan is that although his taste in storytelling has quite rightly come into question over the last decade or so, what shouldn’t be overlooked is just how skilled a director he actually is. The Sixth Sense really is an exposition of top-notch psychological filmmaking – Alfred Hitchcock would undoubtedly have approved. It’s hard to recall any recent Hollywood film where the entire properties of the medium, though especially cinematography and sound, are engaged in such a relentlessly inventive way. Some might say this was an impositional necessity due to the work’s centring around one huge structural about-turn, but The Sixth Sense is a textbook example of impeccable film grammar.

Take, for example, the seemingly insignificant opening scene of Anna Crowe (Olivia Williams) down in the wine cellar searching for a suitably impressive bottle of claret to celebrate the recent professional success of husband, Malcolm (Bruce Willis). Shyamalan is able to endow this sequence with a malingering air of unease by the unusual way he frames Anna, and in subtly subjectifying the perspective (something an audience wouldn’t perceive but would be affected by). This ingenuity of storytelling is also evidenced in Shyamalan’s effective sensory use of a tape recorder turned up to its maximum – both within and outside of the diegesis. This crystallises the moment where Malcolm begins to conscience the true significance of the afflictions besetting his young “client”, Cole (Haley Joel Osment). Even the seemingly utilitarian trope of fading between scenes is thoughtfully considered by Shyamalan. He conceives of incredibly slow fades to black; this imprints the sense of the unreality of time in the narrative, which, in turn, links in so cleverly to the ultimate destination and truth about Malcolm’s journey through the film.

It would of course be hugely remiss not to comment on the film’s colossal twist which is the pièce de résistance of Shyamalan’s construct (don’t worry – no huge spoilers ahead for The Sixth Sense virgins). It has become something of a badge of honour for people now to boast about how they “figured out” the film’s grand conceit, although that has always struck me as being either a case of false braggadocio, someone not admitting to having heard about in on the grapevine or through a web forum, or perhaps – if they genuinely did work it out – they must have spent the whole film fixated on the parlour game of “guessing the trick” rather than luxuriating in the story. To put it another way, if you came into The Sixth Sense unaware it had a climactic twist, it is highly unlikely you would be able to perceive the conceit other than just sensing that something was awry or unusual about the way the narrative is being presented. Without giving too much away, on closer scrutiny, it is also evident that Shyamalan smartly asked his actors to take a fraction of a second’s glance at Malcolm at the beginning of each scene – a subtle way to imprint the legitimacy of his character’s presence and to throw the audience off the scent of The Sixth Sense’s ultimate about-turn.

Talking about Bruce Willis, another of Shyamalan’s great triumphs with The Sixth Sense was how brilliantly he handled the performances of his cast. It’s one of those rare films where it really feels like all the actors got the film’s core spirit, and attacked their roles with a concentricity of purpose. Olivia Williams continued her Hollywood breakout of 1999 (think Wes Anderson’s brilliant Rushmore) with a necessarily restrained and lugubrious turn; Haley Joel Osment was self-possession personified in his disarmingly controlled performance as the boy at the centre of the mystery; and Toni Collette had empathy in spades as Osment’s exasperated mother. Willis was perhaps the pick of the bunch though. It’s one of those performances that only a generous genre actor could give. An earnest luvvie or method performer would have gone to town on the conceit, but Willis plays it watchfully and very compassionately. In fact, Willis’ performance reminded me of a remark the great Roger Ebert made about another of the underrated, mainstream Hollwood pros – Michael Douglas – when reviewing The Game (1997): “he is subtle enough that he never arrives at an emotional plateau before the film does, and never overplays the process of his inner change.”

In a film of near linear perfection, Shyamalan’s only obvious faux pas is the inclusion of the car crash coda involving Cole and his mother. It’s the one scene that doesn’t need to exist; it contradicts the otherwise exacting and chaste management of sentiment in the rest of the film, and betrays a need to over-explain the themes of the story and to overdose on schmaltz which was to become a recurring bad habit in Shyamalan’s subsequent work.

That minor foible aside, The Sixth Sense is an exemplary little Hollywood spooker. And next time, before you line up to join the all-too-familiar anti-Shyamalan bandwagon, remember his only crime is in the law of diminishing returns, and almost trying too hard to carry off the desperately difficult balancing act of genre and exquisite sensibility that was The Sixth Sense(January 2017)

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