I have theorized over the years that M. Night Shyamalan’s success was sort of accidental. It’s an observation (and not an insult) that sometimes artists put things together in a way that accidentally appeals to the zeitgeist which isn’t necessarily characteristic of their body of work. For example, R. Crumb is not someone whose art would generally be even acceptable in the mainstream, not as a matter of quality so much as content. But “Keep On Truckin'” spoke to a generation, apparently, and there you are. Another example: I knew when “Twin Peaks” became the hot ticket TV show of 1990, people were largely going to end up disappointed. They thought they were watching a murder mystery while anyone familiar with David Lynch’s work could tell you this was not a man who was going to make a murder mystery.
On the movie front, there’s Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. Richard Kelly gives us a kind of murky story about alternate realities and heroic sacrifice that works in spite of its dangerous cavorting with the sort of philosophical questions that can make a movie unbearable. It was no surprise that The Box, which actually literalizes a hoary philosophical question, was generally regarded as unsuccessful. (I find it strangely compelling, like Frank Miller’s The Spirit, while note being able to shake the feeling that it’s awful the whole time—but “compellingly bad movies” is a great topic for another day.)
And so, with Shyamalan, I have often wondered that perhaps the elements that make up his style aren’t the sorts of things that would generally be very successful, and it’s just a coincidence that he became so staggeringly huge all at once, only to have one of the most depressing career arcs since Julius became Caesar. And The Sixth Sense was huge. It was #2 at the box office in 1999, coming in second to The Phantom Menace—and people still actually like this movie. It comfortably beat out Toy Story 2, Austin Powers 2 and made $100M more than the other really iconic movie that year, The Matrix.
I should note that there will be spoilers here, even though you nearly-29 year olds probably saw this on cable after it had already been spoiled. And it’s interesting to note that the trailers themselves spoil the movie.
I see dead people.
That’s actually a spoiler. It’s about 45 minutes into the movie and we’re not really aware of what’s going on with this kid, or we wouldn’t be if we hadn’t all seen the commercials. Pissed me off the first time I saw and it still pisses me off today.
The Big Spoiler, of course, is one of the biggest twists since Keyser Soze discovered his sled had a penis, and it is repeated and parodied far-and-wide. As “King of the Hill”‘s Lucky (voiced by the late, great Tom Petty) once said, “The worst thing you can yell in a theater is not ‘Fire!’, it’s ‘Bruce Willis is dead!'” So with the big twists out of the way—and I happily confess to not seeing this one coming at the time—the question remains, is this a good movie? Or, more than just good, if you take away the gimmick, could it still earn its success? The only one of us who hadn’t seen it was The Barb, and she is well-spoiled on basically every movie twist because that’s just how you make YouTube videos: By spoiling everything.
And, here’s the thing, with the Big Twist out of the way, it’s actually a much better movie. (How’s that for a twist!)
The build up to the twist—the sleight-of-hand that prevents you from seeing it—is actually sort of rickety. I remember someone complaining at the time that there are a lot of odd tropes abused by The Sixth Sense that (if you don’t overlook them) make it seem like you’re watching a very sloppy film. And I remember when I saw it the first time, I was like, “Huh. That was odd. That doesn’t make much sense. Why is that happening?” And I did overlook them and so was pleasantly duped.
But watching it again and knowing actually makes the movie much, much better. Because you know Dr. Crowe is dead even though he doesn’t, all of the scenes where people are ignoring him, his alienation from his wife, his ultimate grief at his own failure—they become much more poignant. And this is the best acting from Willis since probably Death Becomes Her (1992). The acting is great all around, although given about twenty years between this and Hereditary, I think we can agree that Toni Colette’s been typecast.
But Willis and Haley Joel Osment have to carry this film, and a few wags have pointed out that Osment gave his defining performance the same year poor Jake Lloyd gave his. A fair degree of credit can be given (in both cases) to their directors, and one thing Shyamalan has done consistently over the years is get good work out of kids. Too, Willis seems to lack the compulsive need to be the center of attention all the time, a compulsion which makes for jangly moments in other movies where the star seems to be in competition with his child co-star. (W.C. Fields’ classic warning comes to mind.)
All this adds up to the fact that the Big Reveal still works. Obviously, you can’t be surprised by it, but as a dramatic moment of realization, when you’re not going back over the whole movie in your head to see if you were cheated, it makes an arguably more powerful moment and certainly a more enduring one.
So, what I’d probably say at this point is that Shyamalan’s success isn’t accidental, but it did sort of ruin him as he increasingly reached farther and farther trying to capture the surprise that wasn’t even the best part of his movie. And the ironic twist here may be that it was his relative obscurity that made it possible: If the audience knew there was going to be twist in this movie, they would’ve figured it out—as we all pretty much ended up doing for all his subsequent films.