By Gary Kafer
Even for someone who never saw M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 masterpiece in theaters or kept up interest with the director’s career, Cole Sear’s iconic line, “I see dead people” (whispered by a haunting Haley Joel Osment), has become a landmark for contemporary supernatural dramas. However, the film always remained on the periphery of my cinephile radar, ironically for the very reason it was such a success when it debuted – its twist ending. Though Cole’s secret became a part of popular discourse following the slew of accolades accompanying the film’s reception, I was never too interested in seeing the movie because I was already familiar with the ending, the morbid journey of Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis). Sure, The Sixth Sense undoubtedly launched Shyamalan into the mainstream while simultaneously carving out space for a line of psychological thrillers from directors such as Aronofsky and Nolan, but perhaps this is just one of those films where the idea precedes the narrative, where one can appreciate the twist without actually having to watch the movie.
But I found that as I watched The Sixth Sense almost fifteen years after its production, the film was just as gripping as it might have been way back when. Having lived in Philadelphia for the past several years, the film took on new significance as I scrutinized each shot for a familiar street or building façade. Here, the city’s rich past becomes the forefront of the narrative, specifically in scenes like the classroom confrontation between Cole and his teacher in which the lesson of the day concerns the urban center’s presence during the American Revolution. In this sense, Philadelphia acts as the fulcrum of Cole’s relationship with Crowe, traced through the contours of the city’s history. From St. Augustine Church on 4th and Vine to the specters of a colonial family hanging from the ceiling of Cole’s school, a significant component of Shyamalan’s horrific touch capitalized on Philadelphia’s legendary ghost stories and haunted sites. One might then argue that The Sixth Sense is less about the surprise ending or Cole’s clairvoyance, but of acceptance, healing, and redemption, all smartly contextualized within the City of Brotherly Love. Notwithstanding Osment’s breathtaking acting, which perhaps was the most captivating element of the film, Cole’s journey to overcoming ostracism, reclaiming individuality, and reconnecting with his mother was profoundly moving for its universality.
It must be said that Shyamalan’s directorial talents rightly earned their numerous celebrations. Having previously known The Sixth Sense’s signature twist, my spectatorship was consumed with deciphering the creative and often ingenious ways that he simultaneously kept Crowe’s death hidden, but also inserted clues to heighten his dramatic revelation. From Crowe’s complex relationship with his wife-turned-widow to the punctuations of red throughout the film’s moody monotone veil, the greatest payoffs came in working and reworking spatial and temporal relationships along with Shyamalan’s discerning eye. While The Sixth Sense is now all but dated, I’d reckon that its indelible power ebbs not through its ghostly mystery, but its cinematic originality.
Gary Kafer, originally from southern Virginia, is a senior in Cinema Studies and Visual Studies at the University of Pennsylvania
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