It’s impossible for me to write about films in any detail without spoilers and I am about to seriously ruin this film for you if you haven’t already seen it. Okay…
There are as many separate points of view and ways of watching The Sixth Sense (1999) as there are characters. Depending on which characters’ perspective the audience is viewing the movie from, they will be experiencing a different story; even a different genre.
These stories run alongside one another, each constructed through the way in which a character decides to decode the world around them. These central ideas of truth and seeing are encapsulated in the sequence where Malcolm and Cole attend the wake of a young girl, Kyra (Mischa Barton) who has died of, apparently, a mystery illness. Everyone at the wake believes one version of events, a ‘story’ that they have been allowed to believe because of the important omission of information from the girls’ mother. When Kyra’s ghost prompts Cole to show a video tape in front of the family and friends gathered to mourn, it soon becomes clear that the real story is much more sinister. Hint: “You were keeping her sick!”
Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis)
The audience is introduced to Willis as the main character of the film, and because of this we have a tendency to believe the version of events we are shown from his perspective. When we see Malcolm, for example, alive and well after the shooting, we assume that he is still alive. For this reason, we also believe that we don’t see or hear any ghosts in the film until about an hour in.
As far as Malcolm is concerned, he is a child psychologist who is trying to reach a disturbed little boy. The boy appears to be suffering from violent bullying at school and his home life is also tough, with a mother who is struggling to cope and an absentee father whom Cole still misses. The boy also reminds Malcolm of a previous patient who he feels he failed (and who we believe tried and failed to kill Malcolm at the start of the film).
Malcolm also believes that, because of his run-in with this aggrieved patient, his career is in ruins and his marriage is also under threat. This means that much of his dialogue is delivered in past tense, such as “I used to be…” when asked by Cole if he is a good doctor. Repeat viewings make well-crafted lines such as this suddenly seem a little heavy handed, with lashings of dramatic irony.
Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment)
Cole’s version of the story is from a more privileged stance than Malcolm; he knows the truth. However, this also means that Cole exists in a much more terrifying genre than Malcolm; he’s in a horror movie. It’s not until his classmate Darren’s birthday party where Cole hears a voice from upstairs that we start to become aware that his perspective might not all be entirely in his head.
It is because Cole’s version of reality is more unlikely that we are less able to see it for what it is; the true version of events and the one that correlates most closely with the objective storyline. The title of the film is so embedded in Cole’s point of view that it is, frankly, crazy that the audience even goes along with Malcolm’s viewpoint and doesn’t guess what is going on, so wrapped up are we with following Malcolm’s story.
Cole whispers to Malcolm most of the time and keeps his movements fairly introverted. This is interpreted by both Malcolm and Cole’s mother, when she is nearby, as shyness or even anxiety. As another example; Cole’s initial meetings with Malcolm are in a church; to Cole, this is a supernatural setting. As far as Malcolm is concerned, he is visiting a little boy in a place where he feels safe. We know for sure that Cole does have some kind of ‘sixth sense’ only when we are shown ghosts who are obviously identifiable as dead and not ‘loving it’. Once we believe Cole, it becomes more likely that we will guess what is going on.
Lynn Sear (Toni Collette)
Cole’s mother, Lynn Sear, believes her child is being bullied by children at school and is deeply affected by the absence of his father. She interprets the strange events around the house and her son’s odd behaviour in the manner of a concerned mother who thinks that her son might be acting out. For example, Lynn believes that Cole has stolen his grandmother’s bumblebee pendant and is lying to her about it. Through Lynn’s eyes, we interpret Cole’s discomfort when he is being questioned as feeling awkward at having to lie to her. In reality, Cole is hiding the truth from his mother, but for other reasons.
When Cole is sitting in a traffic jam with his mother following a road traffic accident, he starts to explain what has happened, and reveals the truth. At first, Lynn misinterprets Cole when he tells her he can see the woman who was killed in the accident, “Oh my god, what, you can see her?…Where is she?” Cole answers, “Standing next to my window.” Lynn’s story is slowly integrated with her son’s when he starts to tell her things about her deceased mother (his grandmother) that he couldn’t possibly know, “She said you came to the place where they buried her. Asked her a question. She said the answer is, ‘every day’. What did you ask?” Lynn is visibly shaken and, choking on her tears, she manages to eventually answer, “Do I make her proud?”
Anna Crowe (Olivia Williams)
If Anna Crowe’s story existed without any of the others, it would run the very real danger of being a bad made for TV movie about a woman who is grieving for her husband and trying to move on.
The audience is invited to dislike Anna and side with Malcolm over their relationship breakdown; whenever we see her with another man we silently judge her. When Anna takes the bill before Malcolm can reach it and mutters, “Happy anniversary”, we think she’s being high maintenance and bitchy. It isn’t until her final conversation with her husband while she is sleeping that we finally feel the sympathy for Anna that her character deserves.
It isn’t until a sleeping Anna drops Malcolm’s wedding ring in her sleep and Malcolm finally allows himself to see that he isn’t wearing it that he realises the truth. The main ‘clues’ are replayed again for the audience’s benefit (we can share that ‘a-ha!’ moment) and Crowe’s reality is forced to merge with Cole’s, as is the audience’s. Well, we were warned… as Cole made clear, to tell a good story “You have to add twists and stuff.”
Is a film with a really good twist enough to sustain a whole film? Certainly not, but I think that The Sixth Sense repeats well; regardless of the information you have going into it. Everything is up for interpretation and re-interpretation. It’s also a film made up of engaging and thoughtful performances. Scarily mature as he may seem, Hayley Joel Osment is strong as the agonised Cole, Toni Collette’s portrayal of Lynn Sear as a mother torn apart by her love for her child is movingly genuine and as Anna Crowe, Olivia Williams is ambivalent enough to allow the whole concept of the film to actually work. I think Willis, uncharacteristically restrained and passive here, is also at his strongest in his Shyalaman movies (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, from the following year).