M. Night Shyamalan’s best work, 1999’s The Sixth Sense clocks in at #89 on our list. The film is a highly efficient one hour and forty seven minutes.
Set in Phialdelphia, Bruce Willis as Dr. Malcom Crowe and his wife Anna, coming home from getting an award for his work for as a child psychiatrist when a young man, Vincent Gray, invades his home, blames him for not curing him of his visions of ghosts ten years ago and shoots Dr. Crowe as well as himself.
Cut ahead to the next fall, Dr. Crowe is going to visit a new patient, Cole Sear, who has similar symptoms to Vincent Gray. He sees Cole outside his apartment and follows him to a church. He tells Cole that he missed their appointment. He talks with Cole and notices cuts on his arm.
He comes home to find that Anna has already eaten dinner and gone to sleep. He goes to the basement.
The next day, we see Cole and his single mother, Lynn having breakfast at their apartment. She goes to fix a spot and comes back to find all the cabinets open. Cole clearly lies and says he was looking for pop tarts. Cole heads out to walk to school with Tommy, who is supposed to be his friend but actually bullies him.
Cole comes home and his mother and Dr. Crowe are at the house. His mother greets him and they tell stories about their day that represent their dreams. She says she is going to make him pancakes and that he has an hour. He walks back to see Dr. Crowe.
Cole and Dr. Crowe play a game where if Dr. Crowe gets thing right about Cole, Cole will come towards him and if he gets things wrong, Cole will walk away. Dr. Crowe gets the first few right, but then gets a bunch wrong and Cole tells him he is a nice guy but that he can’t help him.
Dr. Crowe shows up late for his anniversary dinner. He starts apologizing and says he is struggling to keep track of time and starts describing Cole, she pays the bill and says only “happy anniversary” and leaves.
Cut ahead to Malcolm and Cole walking together. He tells Malcolm to stop looking at him. He shares that he hates Tommy and thinks he is a freak. Malcolm tells him he is not a freak.
Back at home, Lynn sees pictures with weird sparks of light in all the pictures of Cole.
At their next appointment, Cole and Malcolm are discussing Cole’s dad and his leaving. He asks Cole to do some free association writing. Cole says he has done it before and wrote upset words – we see Lynn finding his writing. Malcolm asks Cole what he wants out of the sessions. Cole says he doesn’t want to be scared anymore.
Malcolm is in the basement, he hears a man from Anna’s store come by and invite her to the Amish country. She decides not to go. He sees him as trying to move in on her and mutters, “keep moving, cheese dick”.
Cole is in history class. His teacher asks if anyone can guess what the school was before it was a school. Cole says they hung people and his teacher says he is wrong and that used to be a court house. He yells at the teacher for looking at him. He calls him Stuttering Stanley, which used to be his nickname when he was younger, his teacher starts stuttering. His teacher finally gets angry and says “stop, you freak!”.
Malcolm and Cole meet at what appears to be the school. Cole says he doesn’t want to talk about anything. Malcolm does a stupid magic trick to try to break the ice, but Cole isn’t having it.
Malcolm comes home and sees Anna watching their wedding video. Later, while she is in the shower, he discovers she has a prescription for Zoloft and that the entrance to his basement office has been blocked off by books.
Cut ahead to a birthday party Cole and his mother is at. A bunch of kids lock Cole in an attic. His mother eventually discovers him passed out.
She takes him to the ER where the Doctor says he didn’t have a seizure but that Cole has concerning cuts and bruises. The Doctor seems to accuse her of abusing him. Dr. Crowe is there but remains quiet.
Malcolm sees Cole at the hospital. He tries to tell him a bedtime story but it is terrible. Cole asks Malcolm why he is sad. Malcolm eventually shares the story of Vincent and how his wife is ignoring him and that Cole reminds him of Vincent. Cole tells him his secret – “I see dead people”, “they only see what they want to see” and “they don’t know they are dead”.
Lynn brings Cole home. She finds scratch marks on his sweater and his back.
Cole wakes up to use the bathroom and sees a female ghost in the kitchen who has slit her wrists. He runs, scared back to his room.
Malcolm goes to see Cole in a school play. Afterwards, they are walking and Cole see three people hanged in the hallway. He asks Malcolm to make the visions go away.
At dinner Lynn tells Cole she found her grandmother’s bumble bee pendant in Cole’s drawer. Cole denies taking it – Lynn gets mad and sends him to his room with no dinner. Cole sees a kid who has blown his brains out offering to show him his dad’s gun.
Cut ahead to Anna making a sale at the jewelry shop. She gives the guy from the shop a gift. Malcolm throw a rock at the window and disappears.
Cole asks Malcolm what he wants and Malcolm tells him that he wants to be closer to his wife and that he is transferring him. Cole asks him not to fail him. Cole asks him if he believes him and Malcolm says he doesn’t know how to answer that.
Later that night, Malcolm is re-listening to Vincent Gray tapes and discovers that when he is out of the room, if he turns the volume way up, he can hear the ghosts.
He goes to see Cole in a church and tells him that he thinks the ghosts just want help and that Cole might be able to make them go away if he tries to help them.
Malcolm comes home to see Anna’s new sort-of boyfriend pulling away, he shouts out for him to stop, but he pulls off.
Back at Cole’s, he sees a girl that is throwing up. Initially scared, he eventually goes and asks her if she wants help.
Cole goes to the girl’s (Kyra) wake and delivers a videotape to her father at her request. The video shows her mother deliberately poisoning her food.
Cole is the star of the school play, King Arthur. Cole is talking to another dead woman when his teacher, Stanley (Cunningham) walks in. Cole says he was just practicing his lines and thanks Stanley for the part.
Malcolm sees him afterwards and tells him he was great in the play. Cole realizes that their work is done and they aren’t going to see each other anymore. He tells Malcolm he should talk to his wife while she is sleeping. Malcolm says they have said everything they needed to say and it was time for Cole to talk to people closer to him.
On the way home from the play, Cole and Lynn are caught in a traffic jam because of an accident. Cole tells her he is ready to communicate with her and tell her his secrets. Cole says that a woman on a bike died and that she is standing right outside his window. When his mother freaks out, he relates a story about his grandmother that only she and her grandmother could know.
Malcolm comes home. HIs wife is rewatching their wedding tape agin but has fallen asleep. Anna talks in her sleep and says he misses him and asks why he left her. Malcolm is confused – his wedding ring falls from her hand. In that moment, he realizes that he died the night Vincent shot him. A montage of the scenes with the hints are revealed. He discovers he is still wearing the shirt, drenched in blood and with bullet holes from the night he died. We flash back to see his death. He tells Anna he can go now and that he needs to tell her that she was never second to his work. In her sleep, Anna says goodnight.
I will admit, having been disappointed with what M. Night Shyamalan has done since this film (have you seen the nightmare of the The Last Airbender?), I’d become a bit jaded about his work, but on rewatch, this film is brilliant. The characters are rich and well-developed. Bruce Willis, who is a thoroughly under rated actor, is fantastic as are Haley Joel Osmond and Toni Colette. The story is complete. And while we all the clues were laid out, I didn’t have the ending figured out. The last 15 minutes (the final scene between Lynn and Cole and the final scene between Malcolm and Anna) are absolutely perfect. The camera work and angles are great. The film is at once touching, scary and thought-provoking. The pacing is also excellent – it isn’t a long film but a TON happens and it was actually challenging keeping up with notes on the movie as there is so much going on in even the very short scenes.
I do have some minor quibbles with it – Shyamalan seems to stretch the rules of his virtual world to further the story – Malcolm can break windows at the shop? Cole’s grandmother can visit him even though she knows she is dead and isn’t in need of anything? I’m also not sure what we are supposed to learn from this movie other than that Shyamalan, at his peak, is one heck of a story-teller. Psychiatry itself is portrayed a bit unrealistically and I have some degree of concern about how the film’s portrayal might encourage people with actual delusions that theirs are real.
Production Quality 10/10
Rewatch Value 8/10
Overall Score 35/40
This one deserves to be on the list. It wasn’t around in 1997, so it obviously wasn’t on the original list. The lower end of the top 100 seems like an appropriate spot for this very smart but slightly shallow film. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been less impressed with Shyamalan’s arc than with that of similarly-styled film-maker Jordan Peele, but Shyamalan’s best work is pretty damn good. Up next, 1938’s Bring Up Baby.