Maybe the real dead people were the friends we made along the way
When we talk about “ghosts,” the word can have a number of uses: It can refer to spooky gusts that rattle the china cabinet and manipulate household objects. Alternatively, it can be more metaphorical: long shadows left by certain people or moments of our lives. In spiritual terms, it can refer to connections with souls who have departed this plane but linger.
M. Night Shyamalan explores each of these definitions in his absolutely terrific supernatural thriller, The Sixth Sense. It’s a ghost story in the traditional sense, but also much more earnest, reflective, and reverent than you’d expect, giving its characters deeply emotional inner lives, with superb performances all around, including one of the great child performances in cinema from Haley Joel Osment.
The film is also structured around a storytelling gambit, one that’s so famous I’m going to spend the rest of this review assuming you’re already familiar with it.
Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a child psychologist who works with especially troubled children. After surviving an incident in which a former patient invaded his home and shot him, Crowe begins to doubt his worth, questioning if dealing with these demons is worth the toll it takes on his personal life and psyche. His relationship with his wife breaks down, and he searches for new meaning.
Enter Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). This young patient of Crowe’s is haunted by the various ghosts previously mentioned: the figurative specter of his parents’ divorce and social isolation is matched by visions of actual spirits that to him seem corporeal. These ghosts aren’t at his command but he seems in tune with them, able to guide them.
From the start, we understand that it’s not mere psychosis; something truly supernatural is involved. One of the movie’s first and best scenes is a long take of a hectic breakfast shared between Cole and his mom, Lynn (Toni Collette). She leaves the kitchen, and when she returns, without a single cut, we see that Cole, in mere seconds, has opened every single drawer and cupboard in the room. I find this scene representative of the movie’s identity, so well-executed: a chilling ghost story tied to very human angst.
When Crowe learns what is disturbing Cole (“I see dead people”), he resists the case, but gradually, with insight gained both spiritually and supernaturally, he embraces Cole and his unique gift. He encourages Cole to use his ability to help heal others and, in doing so, heal himself. This reflects the arc Crowe himself goes through as he finds new purpose and motivation in helping Cole, fostering a desire to resolve the crisis in his own life.
And then, in the closing 12 minutes of the film, we get the twist. Crowe is, himself, dead, one of the ghosts that Cole (and no one else) has been seeing. This is one of those perfect, all-time great storytelling flourishes. It’s a fantastic twist because it completely reframes everything we’ve seen so far without feeling like a total cheat; there are more than enough hints to figure it out if you somehow hadn’t been spoiled on it, but it’s just subtle enough to be out of reach if you’re not looking for it. Yet, even when you know the twist, it doesn’t diminish the experience of watching the film. Instead, it makes the film even more exciting as a tense layer of dramatic irony pervades every scene.
What really makes the twist work is not just the clever structural and plotting tricks that make it fall into place, but the way it deepens every theme and character arc in the film. Crowe’s ambivalence about the personal cost of helping his patients becomes more profound, his uneasy relationship with both Cole and his wife all the more poignant. Cole, too, only finds peace by truly accepting and embracing the things that make him special. No one but him could have learned the lessons from Crowe that he did. It’s a movie that doesn’t need a twist but benefits from it quite a bit.
As the film leads us to its daring conclusion, it gets creepier, too. The deeper the movie progresses, the more Shyamalan invites us into Cole’s world, gradually amplifying the supernatural sense of gloom and dread, but always tempering it with touches of humanity. As the film approaches its climax, we see more and more dead people from Cole’s perspective, culminating in a few unforgettable chills. The tensest scene of the film, when Cole first decides to help the ghosts surrounding him, shows a young poisoning victim (pre-OC Mischa Barton) haunting Cole’s home.
Shyamalan, as he has in every film I’ve seen of his, extracts outstanding performances from his cast. Osment is genuinely memorable as a fragile yet intense young boy attempting to process his supernatural world, grounding the film with his emotionally charged expressions. Willis excels too, dialing down his usual gruffness for a more vulnerable performance. Despite being the clear third-bill, Collette leaves a lasting impression; her chemistry with Osment is particularly heartrending during a car ride scene late in the film when Cole finally opens up to his mother.
I do think the middle act of the film could be tighter; shaving off about fifteen minutes might have made the film flawless. There’s also a feeling that Shyamalan and Willis could have probed deeper into Crowe’s character, whose subplot seems merely solid compared to the transcendence of Cole’s story arc.
The Sixth Sense remains a remarkable film, one that uses a ghost story thriller to probe deeper into themes of faith and coping. Shyamalan’s tics and habits would become a punchline in the coming years — I haven’t seen enough of his later films to say whether this critical thrashing is fully fair. But I can say without reservation that The Sixth Sense is something special that proves Shyamalan’s talent: He showcases the potential of supernatural thrillers to tell profoundly human stories.