A ubiquitous tagline and a mind-bending climactic twist made M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit The Sixth Sense a monster sensation — yet this deliberately paced, psychologically sensitive paranormal thriller is much more than a one-trick puzzle movie, and holds up well to multiple viewings.
Redemption, self-understanding, catharsis, and coming to terms with life and death are all deftly woven into a moving character study that makes confident use of cinematic conventions even as it turns them upside down.
Consider the bold prologue, which finds child psychiatrist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis in an effectively muted performance) dramatically confronted with a tragic failure in his past practice. When the story resumes one year later and we see Crowe involved with a troubled young boy (10-year-old Haley Joel Osment in a star-making virtuoso turn) with familiar issues and symptoms, it’s clear from the prologue that Crowe has lost confidence in his ability to make a difference and hopes to redeem himself by helping Cole. It’s a familiar device, yet Shyamalan invests it with far more than the typical motivational significance.
Despite the unsettling ambiance and moments of real fright and horror, The Sixth Sense is fundamentally a story of three relationships. Cole’s single working mother (Toni Collette) is worried about her sensitive, unusual little boy, whose secretive unhappiness and odd behavior may be only the usual (bullies, adjustment issues) but may be something more. Crowe tries to earn Cole’s trust and understand his problems, while at the same time being sadly, ineffectually aware of what seems to be a growing rift between himself and his wife (Olivia Williams).
A few points are sketchier than they should have been. A couple of fleeting lines ("Even the scary ones"; "They only see what they want to see") gesture at ground rules that should have been more clearly established. Yet the film’s logic holds both emotionally and narratively, and Shyamalan brings satisfying closure to all of his characters and their sorrows.
Why, I haven’t come across a fairy-tale premise calling for such childlike wonder and acceptance since the taxation of trade routes was in dispute and the greedy Trade Federation set up a blockade around the planet Naboo.
With The Village, Shyamalan has gone to the well once too often. Whether or not you see the anti-climactic twists coming is almost beside the point. For the first time, Shyamalan has created a puzzle movie populated by characters we can’t identify with, living in a world we can’t relate to. The viewer has no stake in this story; he comes to the Village a stranger in a strange land, and remains so through the course of the film.
Signs has the
heart that was lacking in Unbreakable, but stumbles badly
in its treatment of the paranormal, in this case the world of
"X-Files" / "Twilight Zone"
Such “hope” as Shyamalan has to offer is less persuasive and less memorable than the fears and horrors he conjures; the overall impression created by his film is an ultimately dehumanizing, depressing one.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.