I once heard someone criticize The Sixth Sense saying that there’s no way Dr. Malcolm Crowe could have gone for a long period of time without noticing that no one ever made eye contact with him or talked to him besides Cole. But I think that criticism misses the point of this film’s twist. It doesn’t work because it’s based on real-world logic; it works because it makes us question our assumptions as we watch a movie.
To me, a movie is basically a short story. Everything in a short story has to convey a lot of information, and there’s not much room for indulgence, as opposed to a novel. A novel can take its time introducing characters, showing how they react to different situations and how they grow over time. It can also spend a lot of time on descriptions of settings and actions. A short story has to get to the point immediately and cram all that character development into a handful of scenes at most. Descriptions of characters, settings, and actions have to mean something more than the obvious. Reading a short story vs. a novel requires a different state of mind. We make different assumptions when reading each one.
It’s the same with movies. There are certain premises we have to accept in order to quickly process what we are watching. Here are some of these premises that The Sixth Sense uses to create its twist ending.
Characters Wear the Same Clothes
No one questions why Luke Skywalker wears the same clothes most of the time in each of the Star Wars movies or why none of the programs in Tron ever changes his or her clothes. We just accept that they’re wearing what they’re wearing and continue on to other things. There’s no need to focus on wardrobe unless its relevant to the story. The Sixth Sense cleverly shows Malcolm in the opening scene wearing a nice suit and putting a sweater over it. This helps us get used to how he’s supposed to look. He spends the rest of the film in those same clothes, and we never question it because they were established at the start and it makes perfect sense for a child psychologist to dress formally for his meetings.
When a Main Character Gets Shot, He Will Recover
If you’ve seen just about any other Bruce Willis movie, you’ve witnessed his characters suffer many gunshot wounds and other injuries that look a lot more fatal than the bullet he receives in his abdomen at the start of this film. When the camera fades out on him lying wounded on a bed and then fades in on him sitting on a park bench the next fall, we assume he must have recovered. There’s no way a main character could be killed off before his story gets going. He must have been taken to the hospital where he had a lengthy recovery process and became estranged from his wife. It’s logical for the story to jump forward in time because there’s no point in showing us the details. He’s alive and well, so we can infer the rest.
Everything That Leads Up to a Scene
Going along with the previous point, we understand that a lot of things have to happen off camera before a scene begins. In Back to the Future, before Marty McFly blasts his father’s eardrums with Van Halen music, he must have put on his radiation suit, cued his cassette tape to just the right moment, driven to George’s house, and snuck into his room. But it’s funnier to start the scene without seeing the preparation that went into it. The Sixth Sense is packed with these moments. When we see Malcolm and Cole’s mom sitting silently in the living room, we assume they’ve been talking and are only now silent. We assume the principal contacted Malcolm before he shows up at the school to talk to Cole. We assume someone at the hospital called Malcolm to come when Cole got hurt at a birthday party. We appreciate being spared the details because they would distract from the emotional power of those scenes.
Only Important Conversations Matter
My short-story analogy definitely applies to character dialogue since that is precious time that should never be wasted. If two characters interact, we understand that we should pay attention to what they’re saying to each other. If they never speak to each other, we understand that one is purposefully avoiding the other or that their conversation isn’t necessary to convey new information. We never question why Malcolm only speaks to his wife and Cole or why Cole is the only one to have long conversations with him. There are plenty of other people in the world around Malcolm, but we’re watching his story unfold, not theirs. There’s no reason for him to talk to other doctors about Cole or even to discuss things with the boy’s mother. The film is all about his attempts to help Cole, so it’s mainly those two characters whose interactions matter. The fact that we rarely see Malcolm talk to his wife means that they’re on bad terms with each other. Or so we think.
They Only See What They Want to See
The twist ending of The Sixth Sense works because every scene can be seen in two ways. We are used to watching films a certain way, so we watch the events proceed as though we were watching a typical movie. When we realize, with Malcolm, that we’ve been misreading the signs and misinterpreting the character’s words and actions, we’re genuinely shocked. This film forces us to rethink the way we watch films. It challenges us to learn a whole new language that runs slightly askew from the one we’re used to. In the end, we find that we have been seeing everything through Malcolm’s imperfect eyes this whole time. We thought we knew exactly what was happening, but we didn’t. The Sixth Sense will probably stand the test of time as a great film because it cleverly uses our assumptions against us and makes us better moviegoers in the process. As Cole wisely said, they only see what they want to see, referring to you and me in the audience.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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