I See Twist Endings: The Unfortunate Legacy of ‘The Sixth Sense’

M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout establishes him as a master of revelations more than a trickster obsessed with twist endings.
Sixth Sense Kid
By  · Published on August 12th, 2019

The first time I saw The Sixth Sense, I knew the twist. And this was while the movie was in theaters, not years later when its ending was common knowledge. I may have asked my brother to just tell me since I didn’t think I’d see it anyway — I thought it was a horror movie — and was curious about the phenomenon of its success. Then I went to see it because I was curious whether the movie was only a hit because of its twist. But the problem was, I was thinking about the ending the whole time and so the rest of the movie indeed seemed entirely in service of delivering that surprise. I kind of hated it as a result.

Twenty years later, I have a different opinion of the M. Night Shyamalan‘s breakout feature. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a good drama with an unfortunate reputation and legacy. The Sixth Sense is the movie that led its filmmaker and maybe general audiences to focus on twist endings. It was popular for the wrong reasons, and it’s remembered for the wrong reasons. The line “I see dead people” has become a source for memetic parody (see my own headline) as well as a cultural replication unaltered. And when people think of the movie, they think of the twist.

The famous line and the ending go hand in hand. If The Sixth Sense is only to be thought of as a movie about a kid who sees dead people, then it’s also only a movie about that ending reveal that one of the main characters turned out to be a dead person the whole time. For some, the twist was easily guessed anyway. For others, it came off as obvious after the fact. Shyamalan forecasts the idea throughout the movie enough that he’s on the verge of telling us the secret at various points, and he might as well have because that revelation doesn’t need to be a surprise. Not to us, anyway.

The Sixth Sense should be more noteworthy for its reveals rather than for what’s revealed. That is to say the visual manner of revealing what is ultimately shown. From the beginning of the movie, Shyamalan gives us little bits of wonderful unveilings. There’s the one-shot sequence following Lynn (Toni Collette) from her kitchen into the laundry room and back to the kitchen, where all the cabinets and drawers are suddenly open — not an original or unique trick but still very effectively executed. There are the turns of the head by ghosts exposing gunshot wounds or burns that weren’t visible at first. There’s even the shot in which Malcolm (Bruce Willis) hides the translation of the Latin with his hand until it’s entirely written.

The most memorable part of the movie for me — even in that first viewing when I otherwise hated The Sixth Sense — is the first time Cole aids a ghost in their closure. Kyra (Mischa Barton), the little girl who is initially introduced in a fantastically gross moment where a pan inside the tent ends on her face throwing up, could have just told Cole about how she died, and then Cole could have told her father. Instead, Shyamalan gives us a perfect set up of a kind of mission involving two paranormal agents attend the girl’s funeral and are directed by Kyra to deliver to her father a box containing a video showing how she was murdered by her own mother. It’s so cinematic, all showing — and showing within showing — rather than telling.

The final reveal on its own is also terrific, the way Anna (Olivia Williams) drops Malcolm’s wedding ring and it rolls on the floor. Malcolm looks at her hand to see her rings are still on, then his left hand enters the frame to show his bare ring finger. Even if it’s not the moment of revelation for us, it’s the moment of revelation for Malcolm. Either way, it’s another well-executed visual divulgement for the viewer that is also important for the story’s conclusion. The problem lies in the way the moment is quickly followed by flashbacks driving home the twist for the audience with flashbacks. Malcolm seems to be recalling those scenes himself, but the sequence is still visually overplayed for us, to make sure we get it, too.

And we definitely do and have. It’s so over-transmitted right before the end of the movie that it’s what we think about more than anything else. That and the famous quote, which interestingly enough is repeated during those flashbacks as just “I see people” followed by “they don’t know they’re dead.” There’s a significance to the altered words that is lost because everyone is filling in the more iconic version. And there’s more to the ending than our and/or Malcolm’s realization. Malcolm has just received some closure, both in his brief conversation with Anna and with his discovery that he’s dead. For the story itself, that’s what matters. For the storytelling, there can be different effects for us depending on when and how we learn he’s dead, and that’s not always up to the storyteller, but regardless, the story has to be there first.

Sixth Sense Bruce And Kid

The story of The Sixth Sense is about a boy, Cole (Haley Joel Osment) who learns to accept his gift for seeing dead people and not be afraid but help these lost souls. Malcolm helps the boy, who is lost in a way himself, and he gets some closure in that because he failed a similar kid (Donnie Wahlberg) previously and it cost him both their lives and now he’s made up for that. And in turn, the boy helps him, as one of the dead people he’s guiding to closure, for Malcolm’s situation with Anna. Really, instead of a horror film, The Sixth Sense is a romantic drama, like a redo of Ghost that’s more focused on Sam and Oda Mae, but here Oda Mae is an 11-year-old white kid and Sam doesn’t know he’s a ghost.

Not everything is quite as satisfying as the movie’s best reveals. It’s not consistent. But Shyamalan tries different ways of showing us things. He presents the three hanging ghosts with a straight-on shot of them, revealed with a cut rather than through movement of the camera or the movement of something in the frame the way most of the other reveals are done. That’s still good and scary, as aided by a little bit of score for emphasis. The cyclist is haunting enough but would have been better if revealed as a continuation of the lengthy tracking shot to the car rather than with a cut. The reveal of the poison in the video revealing Kyra’s gradual murder is a little too easy and direct, too, but it works well enough in the context.

There are also issues with the plotting of the story that are caused by Shyamalan’s need to keep Malcolm’s death a secret. Did Malcolm think he arrived at Cole’s house by knocking on the door and being let into the house? Did he not try to converse with Cole’s mom? Who really brought Cole to the play that night that it seems he went with Malcolm? Maybe he’s just free to walk to school even at night? Does he not try to pay for the bus? Does he just think Anna is sticking to the world’s greatest example of the silent treatment?

Those careful but illogical scenes are so in service to the twist ending that it’s no wonder The Sixth Sense seems to be all about that surprise. That’s also why I was — along with others who already knew the twist going in, I’m guessing — so focused on those scenes and not able to pay enough attention to the character-driven stuff, which also includes Lynn’s closure with both her son and her mother that allows her greater happiness at the end. And for anyone who went in knowing there was a twist but not knowing what it is, they were also likely too focused on trying to figure out the secret.

It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s not all just set-up for a punchline, nor are Shyamalan’s movies that followed that maintained his reputation as a master of twist endings. Signs, in particular, has a silly twist, but that movie is also full of great reveals, and even if the final bit is kind of hokey, the reveal plays out well enough. The ending of The Village is also revealed effectively even if it’s a ridiculous twist that undermines a lot of what happens earlier, and much of what happens is revealed in satisfying ways. Shyamalan is a better director than writer, that’s for sure. But The Sixth Sense is overall a better movie in both regards than anything else he’s done save for Unbreakable, which has a twist but not one that shoots for the moon.

Great twists are those that blow people’s minds but also work well enough in the stories that knowledge of them isn’t a problem. Nobody goes into Psycho or The Empire Strikes Back without having heard of their famous twists anymore. Similarly, everybody is familiar with the twist of The Sixth Sense, enough that other movies and TV shows can make reference to it as though it’s public knowledge. It’s a good enough movie to come out from its own twist’s shadow. Let’s remember the line, even if incorrectly, as “I help dead people” and remember the ending as not just a twist but a satisfying denouement to Malcolm’s journey to the realization. Then there’s an even playing field and all falls into place as it should.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.