The Sixth Sense and more
The Sixth Sense
M. Night Shyamalan
Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg, Glenn Fitzgerald
(Buena Vista Pictures; US theatrical: 6 Aug 1999; 1999)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away—let’s call it 1999—M. Night Shyamalan was a budding talent in film—not a punchline synonymous with bloated self-parody (see: Lady in the Water, The Happening). His 1998 effort Wide Awake, the story of a fifth-grader inspired by his grandfather’s death to seek answers from God, had generated neither the commercial triumph nor critical buzz to hint at what was to come. And so, to look back with the benefit of hindsight at the film that suddenly made Shyamalan a household name—the box office figures! the six Oscar nominations! the canonization of “I can see dead people” among unforgettable movie quotes!—is to wonder, What happened?
But it’s also to acknowledge that it wasn’t always this way. The Sixth Sense was the coming of age of a director confident in his tone and his actors, both aspects moody and understated, as the film hurtles towards a climax as inevitable as it is shocking. There is nothing new, of course, about the use of children as supernatural gateways in film; The Shining, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist are only the most famous examples. But Haley Joel Osment gives the sort of convincing, nuanced performance rare for so young an actor, capturing skillfully the distinctly childlike fear and insecurity that plagues Cole Sear’s character. He is not like other children, he tells us: he sees dead people, and these bloody apparitions seem to haunt the boy at every corner, giving the film its misleading horror label. (Michael Cera, in an interesting bit of trivia, gave an unsuccessful first audition for this role, for which Osment garnered an Oscar nomination at 11 years old.)
Shyamalan constructs this quietly unnerving atmosphere, and at the center he places Cole’s brooding interactions with Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist whose determination to help Cole is fraught with painful irony, given that he can scarcely understand his own problems. Why, for example, has communication with his wife become so strained? We see Crowe get shot early in the film by a former patient who felt betrayed by his help; with Cole, eerily reminiscent of that patient, the psychologist is determined not to repeat his mistakes. Shyamalan’s choice of Bruce Willis for this role is perhaps inadvertently wise. The actor “usually plays his characters flat and matter of fact,” noted Roger Ebert in his 1999 review; “Here there is a poignancy in his bewilderment.” It’s true: Crowe’s bafflement throughout the film is ours, too; and we share his ultimate shock and comprehension.
I write now with the assumption that you have seen the film: spoilers follow, because spoilers are what give the script its meaning and its depth. Dr. Crowe is not what he appears, and neither is The Sixth Sense. Considered by some one of four horror films ever to receive a Best Picture nomination, this is only a horror film in the absolute loosest sense of the term. Its chief tool is suspense more than violence, and its climax pulses not with terror but drama.
And speaking of depth, watch the film a second time and you’ll swear there never was anything to spoil. “I see dead people,” announces Cole; cue the close-up on Crowe. And then: “They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” You wonder how anyone (and everyone) could miss the hint.
Yes, that’s what makes the film work: the twist never feels like a cop-out because it’s entrenched from the beginning—Crowe’s telling lack of interaction with anyone besides Cole, his puzzling inability to open that basement door, even his unchanging outfit. And the patterns!—cold temperatures, representing anger; bright red, dousing with unanticipated relevance objects “in the real world that have been tainted by the other world.” It’s all quite clever. Too clever?
Shyamalan takes a unique delight in his own cleverness. The flashbacks at the end—as if he doesn’t trust the viewer to go back and put the pieces together—suggest a need to be smarter than his audience, and smarter than his character. And the DVD’s special features go further, providing for you a “Rules and Clues” segment, even an admission that the filmmaker was initially loathe to include that close-up of Dr. Crowe: wasn’t it too obvious? Can you take that, viewer!? He’s mocking you!
Perhaps this is the clue to Shyamalan’s downfall: the brilliance of The Sixth Sense cemented the filmmaker’s ego and self-importance; and with schlock like The Happening, he only sees what he wants to see: another masterpiece. The last laugh is ours. But as critics and film fans alike rush to declare his irrelevance, we’d be remiss not to recognize The Sixth Sense as an essential relic from a millennium past. Once, he was the one mocking us—and with a film as well-crafted as this, I’ll be damned if he didn’t earn the right. Zach Schonfeld
Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Heather Graham, Terence Stamp
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 13 Aug 1999; 1999)
Frank Oz and Steve Martin’s Bowfinger opens with surprising melancholy for a madcap comedy. The camera pans across the shabby interior of Bowfinger International Pictures as its one permanent employee, Bobby Bowfinger (Martin), reads through a script, forlorn answering machine messages playing in the background.
Oz can afford to begin with such an easy pace because Bowfinger, written by Martin, turns out to have supreme confidence, unfolding with clear comic logic. We’re introduced to Bowfinger’s group of losers and hangers-on as he pitches them on Chubby Rain, a science-fiction screenplay written by his accountant (“and part-time receptionist”) that he sees, if he squints, as their last great chance to make a movie. Someday, Martin waxes to his audience, the Fed-Ex truck will stop in front of Bowfinger International Pictures and bring them important scripts and offers. Their desperation is funny, yes, but also immediately recognizable, and kind of touching.
The film brings us up to speed with paranoid action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) just as efficiently: his first scene is a fiery knockout, with Murphy delivering bravura rapid-fire rants about catchphrases and racial suspicions. Ramsey and Bowfinger will intersect because the misbegotten Chubby Rain needs a star. Bowfinger, desperate to offer hope to his friends as well as himself, finds an inventive solution: he and the crew will film around Ramsey without his knowledge and insert his six key scenes into their sci-fi spectacular.
Back in 1999, it was easy to overlook Bowfinger. It came out during a then-record-grossing summer movie season, a minor hit amidst a Star Wars prequel, an Austin Powers sequel, The Sixth Sense, Blair Witch, and so on, and by year’s end it would be lost among the year’s serious, ambitious triumphs. But with the added ten years of perspective, it’s easier to see what a terrific comedy it is.
On a technical level, it is polished and surehanded, with fine performances all around. Murphy in particular, playing both Kit and his nerdy, sweet-natured lookalike brother Jiff (employed for much-needed close-ups), has never been better. Martin’s screenplay supplies affectionate but clear-headed jabs at Hollywood, and the film actually offers some observations on the order of those so recently celebrated in Tropic Thunder: at one point, Kit Ramsey complains that he won’t win an Oscar until he plays a “retarded slave,” and a pre-comeback Robert Downey Jr. even puts in a brief, droll appearance as a studio executive.
Beyond the laughs, the film is surprisingly heartfelt. When Chubby Rain is eventually screened in all of its cut-rate glory, the shots of its beaming cast and crew are touchingly reminiscent of the closing of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Bowfinger International Pictures is rewarded—via Fed Ex!—with an offer to make a movie in Taiwan “starring Kit Ramsey’s brother.” Our brief glimpse at this film—a hilariously cheap kung fu adventure called Fake Purse Ninjas—takes Bowfinger out on a splendid high note. Coming from 1999, at the end of the mid-nineties indie movie boom, this pure childlike glee in moviemaking feels especially infectious. I laugh at the end of Bowfinger not just because Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy are punching through a low-budget exploitation movie, but because the film makes me genuinely happy for their characters; this is exactly what Bobby Bowfinger, Jiff Ramsey, and company want to be doing.
I’d hope the same could be said of the film’s major players, who all hit simultaneous comedy peaks they have yet to match since. Since the release of Bowfinger, Frank Oz has made two comedies that don’t work; Eddie Murphy has continued his career-long trend of working with the hackiest, least challenging comedy directors-for-hire available; and Steve Martin has starred in some of the worst and most profitable movies of his career, appealing primarily to undemanding family audiences.
Maybe Oz, Martin, and Murphy haven’t since equaled Bowfinger because this kind of broad, star-driven studio comedy seems slightly outmoded now—older comic stars take aim for the family audience, while the Ferrell/Stiller/Apatow model dictates, not unwisely, that stars should bring along plenty of scene-stealing, improvising back-up. But even ten years later, Bowfinger‘s old-fashioned farcical craftsmanship still gives me new-millennial hope that Martin, Murphy, or Oz—or Dan Akroyd or Chevy Chase or Harold Ramis, for that matter—could make a great comedy again. Jesse Hassenger