The surprise ending to “The Sixth Sense” has gotten so much attention that it threatens to overshadow the film. I occasionally hear people say things like the following: “The ‘twist’ was so obvious that I figured it out in the first five minutes!” Some of those people may even be telling the truth. There’s no way to know. But there’s a lot of condescension in such remarks, an implication that anyone who didn’t figure it out must be a really dumb sucker. At least in my case I have an excuse. When I first saw this film back in early 2000, I knew nothing about it other than that it was about the relationship between a psychiatrist played by Bruce Willis and a child with some sort of psychic power. I didn’t even know what that psychic power was, and an early scene led me to think it was telepathy. In short, I had no idea even what the movie’s subject was until about the middle of the film, so I was completely adrift as to solving the movie’s mystery.
Still, to anyone who did figure the secret out quickly, I have this to say: you may be smarter than I am, but that does not make this a bad movie. Hitchcock went to great lengths to keep the ending to “Psycho” from leaking out. Many people who watch that film today figure the twist out (probably because it has been imitated in countless thrillers since then), but the film is still a classic that holds up well today. Surprise endings are, ultimately, just clever contrivances, extra layerings on the cake. They do not constitute the difference between a good movie and a bad movie. A movie must work on its own terms before springing a surprise.
Nevertheless, there can be no denying that the twist in “The Sixth Sense” is particularly clever. It’s no virtue if a twist is impossible to predict. It is just as important that the twist be logical as that it be surprising. Plenty of thrillers feature twists that are arbitrary, where the plot fails to provide enough hints. Even a clever thriller like “Fight Club” requires a bit of a stretch to accept the ending. What makes “The Sixth Sense” impressive is that it never cheats by suggesting that earlier scenes were imaginary. Everything we see is real, and only our assumptions fool us. If, however, you weren’t fooled, all the better: just because you figure out the magician’s trick does not make it a bad trick.
Consider what appears to be happening in the film. Willis plays a psychiatrist who has received accolades for helping children with problems. We see a romantic evening with him and his wife at home. Then he gets into an ugly, violent confrontation with a former patient. Willis believes he has failed, and he wants to make amends by helping a new child (Haley Joel Osment) who appears to be having the same problems (and perhaps the same abilities) that his former patient once displayed. But just as he thinks he’s making progress with Osment, his marriage seems to be falling apart. His wife isn’t talking to him, and is beginning to see another man.
However these events may be reinterpreted by what is revealed later, the movie is effective because it works on this basic level. In a key scene, Willis asks Osment what he wants most, and Osment answers, “I don’t want to be scared anymore.” It is not always clear that Osment is really facing a mortal threat. But because the movie establishes that he is undergoing a scary experience, by the time the movie reveals what it is that is frightening him, we have our emotions invested in the character, and the terror is very real to us. This is a step that most horror films neglect, the recognition that the most powerful fear may be the fear of fear itself.
When I was a teenager, I assumed that all good horror films had to have an R rating. Even as an adult, I was surprised that a movie as frightening as “The Sixth Sense” received only a PG-13. In hindsight, however, most of my favorite horror films, whatever their rating, have relatively little violence. Like all good horror films, “The Sixth Sense” allows the suspense to build and does not rely on either excessive violence or cheap scares. The ending adds an additional level of intrigue, but it is not necessary to one’s enjoyment during the first viewing. Still, if you have not seen the film by now and remain woefully ignorant of the surprise lurking in its plot, I urge you, before someone ruins it for you, go and watch the movie!