When the 'Sixth Sense' Was More than Just Its Twist

The Sixth Sense - H - 1999
M. Night Shyamalan is known for his surprise endings, but there's a reason his first hit is still talked about — 20 years later.

Twenty year ago, The Sixth Sense shocked audiences. M. Night Shyamalan’s supernatural drama effortlessly delivered gasp-worthy scares and heartstring-tugging emotions when it opened Aug. 6, 1999. Yet, for all of the movie's deserved success, Hollywood failed to see what truly drove that success in its attempt to replicate it with several misfires. Execs eager to cash in made the “twist ending” the feature of subsequent projects, as opposed to telling a story that earns it.

The greatest thing Shyamalan pulled off was making his Sixth Sense a family drama first and a scary movie second. At its core, Shyamalan’s slow-burn screenplay is a story about family, grief and the way the latter can literally haunt and emotionally scar the former. It’s about how both the dead and the living process moving on by confronting the traumas and regrets of the past holding them back. From the jump, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a child psychologist who's made a career out of putting his patients ahead of his family, or his wife Anna (Olivia Williams) and her desire to start one of their own. When his work literally follows him home one day, and steals him from his wife with the pull of a trigger, Malcolm’s unresolved issues — namely not being there for his wife when he was alive and desperate to be there for her in the afterlife — become intertwined with that of his next, last patient: Young Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). 

The only thing more compelling than Osment’s performance is the arc on which Shyamalan puts his character. It’s one that feels straight out of early Spielberg, with Cole’s gift and curse to “see dead people” in a way that forever changes (for good or bad) the regular people they walk amongst. Both Malcolm and Cole can’t move past their respective blocks without each other’s help, which in turn leads to helping those who care the most about them move on — or learn to live better with — their recent losses. 

Cole’s mother (Toni Collette) struggles with opening up to her closed-off son, with the recent death of her mother and her regrets surrounding that holding her back. Guilt anchors Anna to her suffering as well; the temptation to engage with a new suitor following her husband’s death turns the act of “moving on” into an albatross. For a summer blockbuster to tackle such heady and complex themes (virtually unheard of now), and force its characters to confront them in truly resonate and relatable ways, is a testament to the movie’s staying power. And why the movie has most of it at all; it’s not just the twist. 

Sixth Sense has a good script with a really great ending. Without that twist, the ambitious movie still works on an emotional level. The same can’t be said for its many less-than imitators that Hollywood spent much of the early aughts forcing down our audiences' throats. Why we fail to talk about those — including Shyamalan’s own subsequent twist ending-driven efforts (The Village and Lady in the Water especially) — with the same reverie is why, two decades later, we’re still talking about Sixth Sense. Because, like the spirits Cole sees, the characters and emotional stakes of Shyamalan’s first (and last) great movie follow us long after the credits roll.