February 18, 2010

#89: The Sixth Sense

We as a moviegoing public have some sort of fascination with misdirection, don't we? Don't we love the thrill of realizing everything has changed in an instant almost as much as typical thriller-thrills? The best modern example of the 'twist ending' is certainly M. Night Shyamalan's 1999 supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense, a movie that rode its own popularity and cultural phenom status to six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. It stands as one of only a handful of horror films to be nominated for the top prize, and the last one to date.

Company: Kecia, roommate, comedy enthusiast and Shyamalan fan; Katie, would-have-been-12-when-this-came-out girl

Cuisine: beach club from Jimmy John's. Thanks, sub, for all your unnecessary sodium. You're still delicious.

This is a film that's familiar to most contemporary moviegoers, especially most who would read a blog about movies, but even so I'll try not to give away the twist. Basically, several months after a former patient breaks into his home and shoots him, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (a nearly expressionless Bruce Willis), a prominent Philadelphia child psychologist, is still haunted by the encounter and resolves not to make the same mistake with nine-year-old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a strange young fellow who, as it turns out, has visions of the dead. This plot summary will get you through most of the film -- what I had forgotten about it, and what makes it truly intense, is the way the film sustains a mood throughout. Most thrillers nowadays will cut away to something light, then back to the dark, to keep the audience guessing. Shyamalan never lets up -- his world is firm in its dreariness and sense of dread.

Don't follow that balloon!

This overwhelming, insatiable dread is aided by James Newton Howard's stringy score and Shyamalan's use of the color red. I had forgotten how blank the palette for this movie is, so much so that when the color red appears, it's extremely vibrant. In a scene I had nearly forgotten, Cole follows a red balloon up a spiral staircase at a birthday party, only to hear a ghost locked in a closet. Some cruel kids at the party, including the birthday boy, lock him inside, and in a truly terrifying moment, we see the balloon pop in sync with Cole's bloodcurdling cries. In this instance, and throughout most of the film, Shyamalan's use of pacing and timing is just right.

One problem I did have, though, was that since the performances of Osment and Toni Collette as his mother are both so good, I had a hard time caring too much about Bruce Willis, whose performance pales in comparison. He spends most of his time smirking knowingly and whispering small words. I get what you're going for, Willis, but there's a reason both of those other actors were Oscar-pegged and you weren't. A lot is asked of Osment, who was eleven at the time of filming -- much more, in fact, than a lot of other similarly praised child actors -- but what stands out to me the most is his sense of control and poise. For such a young actor, he holds his own extremely well with more experienced actors, most poignantly in the scene with his mother at the dinner table and in his confession in the car.

Toni Collette is one of our best actors working, and it's such a shame that this is her only Oscar nomination. She's often pigeon-holed as 'the ugly sister' or 'the weird girl,' but she's so real and vulnerable onscreen ... someone give her more roles already! Her sense of ease with a much younger actor in this scene is a testament to her craft -- watch the way she allows Osment to take complete control of the scene. She knows just how to play it. Good God, Toni.

I found the film much more rewarding now, having not seen it straight through for many many years. Of course, when you know the twist, there's so many clues along the way that would lead you to that conclusion, and while the film has been parodied to death, it stands up well. A few friends were shocked by its inclusion on the list, but I wonder if this film represents the shock, the misdirection, the thrill -- reasons we still love Hitchcock (and his four films on the list!) -- or maybe even the cultural phenomenon. Nobody knew who Shyamalan was before this film, and it's been his only true hit. In a genre that's usually lackluster, this one cleanly executes a surprise, and for that we remember it.

Back to the thirties, now, with #88: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and one very sweet leopard in Bringing Up Baby!

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