M. Knight Shyalaman’s The Sixth Sense (1999), number eighty-nine on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list, is a good movie. The problem is that once you have seen it, subsequent viewings lose their luster. This is because of the big twist at the end, but I will get to what that is specifically here in a little bit. This particular Shyamalan piece is also his best. If you do not want to believe me, take AFI’s word for it. It is the only thing he did that is among these august rankings. It was not his first, but it set a precedent for him that he seemed to not be able to get out of even to this day. I am referring to his penchant for throwing in some kind of supposedly unpredictable left turn in the closing moments that puts a different spin on everything you have just witnessed. This is not why today’s film is a quality production. It is enjoyable because it has heart. Most of the rest he has done has been schlock.
Be warned: if you have not seen The Sixth Sense, I am going to spoil the entire film early in this review. Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a renowned child psychologist. He has returned home with his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), after receiving an award from the mayor of Philadelphia, the city in which they live, for service to the community. Staggering into bed a bit drunk, they sober up quickly when they find an intruder in their bathroom. This is Vincent Grey (Donnie Wahlberg), a former patient of Dr. Crowe. Vincent is upset, to say the least, because he feels Dr. Crowe did not help him when he was younger. Clearly disturbed, Vincent takes out a gun, murders Dr. Crowe, and then blows out his own brains. A few months pass and Dr. Crowe is sitting outside of the home of little Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) reviewing notes on Vincent. Cole pauses a moment after emerging from the front door to stare at Dr. Crowe before hurrying on his way. While Dr. Crowe is being observed, he looks over some other sheets of paper containing thoughts on Cole. There are many similarities between the boy and Vincent. When Dr. Crowe looks up, he sees that Cole is walking briskly down the sidewalk, eventually going into a Catholic Church (yay!). This is where Dr. Crowe finally catches up to Cole, finding him playing with toys in one of the pews. Dr. Crowe says that he is there to help, but Cole does not think this is possible. At home, Cole’s mother Lynn Sear (Toni Collette) is worried about her son’s socialization. Strange things happen around him, and he does not have many friends at school. He is also afraid to talk about his problems with his mom, partially because she has some issues of her own. With her husband having left her and working two jobs, she has a lot of pressure on her. Thus, Cole does things to keep the status quo, such as bribing one of his classmates to make it look like they are buddies. Later, when Cole gets home from school, he finds Dr. Crowe sitting in the living room with Anna. Anna gets up to make dinner while Dr. Crowe attempts to win Cole’s trust. This is only partially successful. Dr. Crowe shows up again, this time at school following an incident where Cole embarrasses his teacher before the rest of the class. This time, Dr. Crowe tries to demonstrate to Cole a magic trick, but the boy sees it for the simple sleight of hand that it is. Nonetheless, Cole tries showing the same maneuver to another of his classmates at a birthday party. When the other kid appears unimpressed, Cole wanders up the staircase and begins hearing shouting from behind a creepy looking door at the top. Two bullies decide to lock him inside. When Anna finally gets Cole out, there is evidence of physical harm, which lands Cole in the hospital. Dr. Crowe comes to visit and Cole is finally ready to reveal his secret: he sees dead people. At first, Dr. Crowe dismisses this as your garden variety psychological issue, read as not real. Still, given the similarities with Vincent, Dr. Crowe decides to take one more look at his former patient’s file. Among them is a recording of one of their sessions. During a moment when Dr. Crowe is called out of the room, he hears words from somebody else who did not appear in the room. Now a believer, it gives Dr. Crowe an idea for treating Cole. Instead of looking at it as some kind of disease from which to be cured, Cole can render assistance to those souls who seek him out. The opportunity to do so comes when a child (Mischa Barton) in pain shows up in his room wanting to show him something. The next day, Dr. Crowe takes Cole to her home where there is a wake happening on the heels of her passing. Going into her room, Cole is given a box containing a tape. He brings it to her father (Greg Wood). He puts it on and it shows her mother (Angelica Page) poisoning her daughter. Though it is not the most pleasant of news to deliver, it brings Cole a new sense of purpose. Thus, following a school play that Dr. Crowe attends, Cole has one las meeting with Dr. Crowe. They know they will not be seeing each other anymore, and Cole offers Dr. Crowe some advice for dealing with an Anna who has been distant this entire time. Dr. Crowe suggests that Cole trust his mother more, and it is on the way home from the play that he finally admits to Anna what has been going on with him. As for Dr. Crowe, he returns home to find Anna asleep on the couch. He does what Cole says, talking to her as she slumbers. While doing this, his wedding ring falls from her hands. This is when he looks at his hand to find that his wedding band is not where it should be. He then suddenly remembers being shot and dying. After accepting his fate, he bids goodbye to Anna and the film ends.
As I said in the introduction to this review of The Sixth Sense, most people, including Shyamalan apparently, get hung up on the twist that Dr. Crowe had been dead the entire time. This is not the point of the movie, however. Besides, it tells you that this happens right when he is shot. The camera is above the bed on which he lays dying, panning out to indicate the soul leaving the body. Mentioning the soul is a good way to segue into my Catholic analysis. The word that comes to mind when watching the movie is Purgatory. Before continuing, please know that what I am about to say in no way is meant to suggest that the Catholic Church believes that the kind of ghosts some believe haunt us today and as shown in the movie is to be equated with Purgatory. Yet, the parallels are tantalizing. “Purgatory” has as its root word the Latin word purgare, from which we get the modern use “to purge.” Today’s culture has given that verb a negative connotation, whether you are talking about dumb slasher franchises or eating disorders. What it actually refers to is the action of getting rid of something unwanted. The Catholic Church has maintained from the beginning that Purgatory is a place where some souls go to purify themselves before an eventual entrance into Heaven. Their progress in this process can be helped by our prayers, and praying for them is a grace. Put differently, there is something that a soul must do before it can “pass on,” as the phrase sometimes goes. This is what Cole eventually learns to do as a way of coping with the understandably frightening ability to see dead people. From a certain point of view, it is good that he decides to help people. The problem is that the film casts the deceased as the kind of ghosts that go bump in the night, if you get my meaning? The Church does not necessarily deny the existence of such beings. What it cautions against under no uncertain terms is in meddling with them in any way. Doing so represents a danger to our own souls.
What I do appreciate about Cole in The Sixth Sense from a Catholic perspective is that he relies on Church paraphernalia, as well as a physical church, for protection. I wear a St. Benedict, terror of demons, bracelet roughly for the same reasons. Very roughly, mind you. What I worry about with this film is people being inspired to follow the path of modern-day spiritualists that try to communicate with the deceased. You may think you are helping lost souls, but it is actually like playing with spiritual fire. As I said, this is a good movie, but proceed with caution in watching it. In the meantime, stay away from spirits, unless it is the Holy Spirit.