01 January 2010

50. The Sixth Sense



This is a bit of a Sylvester Stallone situation in the sense that, because M. Night Shymalan sucks so bad now, it's actually hard to remember why he was ever thought of as a wunderkind beforehand. Then you go back and watch the movie with a critical eye and realize that those labels only come about because of talent, or at least lightning striking once.

This is a good screenplay. Here's one mark of a pro: there's lots of exposition in dialogue, but its always buried in something else so we don't see it. In the very first scene, it's buried in Olivia Williams reading her husband's award to him, which tells us everything we need to know both about him and his strained relationship with her. Another example: Willis comes to Osment's house and plays a game: step closer if I'm right, step away if I'm wrong. Because it's in the context of a "game", we get to learn lots about Cole without feeling forcefed. Smart.

There are other things to admire as well: many good movies teach you some little facts, and this one gives the audience a window into Philadelphia history and free association writing; there are effective uses of ice breaking comic relief ("cheese dick" comes to mind, although that plays like an adlib); it is also structured tightly, with a prologue that ends up being more important than we realize, a classic "task" in the first act set-up, a big trailer-moment revelation at the midpoint ("I see dead people"), another task for the 2nd part of the 2nd act (the Mischa Barton bits, which show whether or not Osment can use his powers for good and not become another Damien "Omen" child), and then a short and satisfying 3rd act that wraps it all up, with Osment in full control of his powers ("The Sword and the Stone" is surely no thematic accident) and a twist.

About that twist. There are film grammar reasons is works, mostly in that they used a big star with screen presence who doesn't have to say anything in a scene and we still sense that he does, but it also works due to the writing because Shymalan uses and inverts a standard movie trope: the overworked man who neglects his family. We buy that this is yet another guy in a movie who is working too hard and too obsessed with his job because he failed at it in the past, and we buy that because we've seen it in other cliche-ridden movies with a big emotional scene at the end where he realizes the true value of his life: his family. Shymalan takes that and uses it, and when the actual truth is revealed, it's shocking enough and enough of an inversion to go down in history as one of the biggest movie twists ever.

So that's the writing. A few other things I want to discuss: first is Tak Fujimoto's cinematography. The lighting in the film is wonderful and effective, but I was mostly impressed with the long, slow dolly shots that, similar to a Woody Allen film, encompass entire scenes. These work because they build tension (they're often seen when Willis is with his wife), but they also work because they're constantly moving and are dynamic enough for the layperson not to notice. They also effectively employ handheld tracking shots (the trick cabinet shots being a particularly fun one), much like Fujimoto has done with Jonathan Demme. This is no accident: as much as Shymalan was being hailed as the next Spielberg (I think mostly because of his control of tone and his great directing of a child actor), I think he looked to Demme, and "Silence of the Lambs" in particular, for ways to visually convey scenes and themes.

There are also many things to admire in the directing. For one, Willis has hardly ever been better. He's restrained, he's hang-dog, we believe him. And it isn't easy to work with a child actor and to treat them like an equal, to not subtly coach them. Those scenes between him and Osment make or break the movie, and they work. Osment too, was cast well and never let the tone slip. This is a tough role for a kid to play, but he was given good material and a sure hand to work with in Shymalan.

There's also something that's hard to articulate and harder to achieve, and I call it "switching gears" and it's something that good directors always are able to do well. It's when a scene starts out as seemingly one genre and moves into another effortlessly. A good example would be the "why am I so funny scene?" with Joe Pesci in "Goodfellas". It starts out seemingly innocuous, with Pesci telling a joke and everyone enjoying themselves. Then it turns into menace in a second. Then back to joking and then to menace again when the manager comes over and the threat of violence is realized. If movies are about manipulating emotion (as I'm increasingly inclined to believe), then a director's role is to do her best possible job at visually conveying to the audience how they should feel at any particular moment (you could make the argument that this heavy-handed and close-ended approach is a particularly Hollywood thing, and I wouldn't argue with you -- but I wouldn't say that's a bad thing either). An example from this picture would be the prologue scene wherein we're set-up to believe that Willis and Williams are drunk and are going to fuck to celebrate his award, and instead we get a broken window and an insane old patient of Willis'. The tone changes in an instant and in the same scene, we're in a different genre. That's hard to do, and it's done more than once in this well-directed movie.

Finally (and I'm only pointing this out because I'm paying more attention to it), the costume design is great. Collette always wear lower-class clothes and big sweaters, Osment always wears a tie, and if all that red around the mise-en-scene and all those narrative clues didn't clue you in to the twist, here's another thing to consider: Willis wears the same suit the entire movie.

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