If you ask most people what this story is about, then they are likely to tell you that it is about ghosts. A small 9-year-old boy, Cole Sears (Haley Joel Osment) sees dead people all of the time. This frightens him and he is labeled as a freak by anyone who notices he has special abilities---even his schoolteacher calls him a freak in front of the class. He won't tell his mother what is happening to him, as he doesn't want her to see him as a freak. Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a child psychologist who begins helping him. Together they finally understand that this is real and that what the ghosts want is help. If they get the help, then they will go away. Cole solves his problems by doing two things. First, he listens to a child ghost and goes to her home where they are having a wake for her. The ghost shows him where she has hidden a videotape. Cole takes the tape to the dead girl's father and he plays it to discover that the girl's mother is the one who killed her! Second, he finally tells his mother what he is experiencing. She knows he is telling the truth because Cole relates how his grandmother tells him things. For example, the grandmother explains that she did attend the daughter's dance recital long ago, but she was in the back. The daughter all these years never knew that her mother had attended this important event in her life. She always has wondered how her mother felt about her. Another thing the grandmother told Cole is the answer to the question that his mother asked his grandmother when she visited the gravesite. The grandmother's answer is: "Every day." Cole asks his mother what was the question. The question is: "Are you proud of me?" By this point the mother is in tears and the child and mother are clearly and deeply and positively connecting.
When the psychologist goes home, after the above scene, which in many respects ends what you thought the movie was about, we then are shocked---and so is the Willis character Dr. Malcolm Crowe shocked---to discover that Dr. Crowe has been dead all along! Cole has been talking to him while he was dead! Remember, the dead need help. Crowe needed help. The boy, Cole, gave him that help without his even knowing it until the end. Dr. Crowe in the closing scene, after he realizes he is dead, says to his sleeping wife: "I think I can go now. I needed to help someone and I did and I needed to tell you, you were never second."
It is particularly interesting that we are presented with two mothers in this movie. One is Cole's mother and the other is the dead girl's mother. One is a loving mother able to listen to and love her son. The other is a mother who kills her daughter. The film constantly underlines in this way and others that we have a choice. We can listen….or not….and if we don't, then we are dangerous! Mother's who don't listen kill their children. Mother's who listen live. Psychologists who listen and accept their patients save BOTH the patient and themselves. Psychologists who don't listen, are deadly to both their patients and themselves.
The film was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It was nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture in 1999. Shyamalan began making films when he was 10 and growing up in Philadelphia. His parents were both doctors (14 doctors are in the family and he was expected to be #15) but he elected to go to the NYU film school instead of accepting one of the scholarships he was offered to medical schools. He wrote, directed, produced, and starred in his first low budget film that was made in India entitled Praying With Anger in 1992. Other films since then have been Wide Awake and Unbreakable with his 2002 film being Signs.
A movie like The Sixth Sense requires very careful plotting out because at the end it all has to make sense. Dr. Crowe is in a lot of scenes where we "think" he is a real person, not a ghost. At the end we are surprised to learn that he was a ghost and as we go back over all the scenes we can see that we were fooled, that he never talked to the mother, even though he was in the room at the same time. He wore the same clothes throughout the film. Everything he did, in retrospect, was consistent with a ghost that no one could see except for Cole. It works. Close storyboarding helped Shyamalan put it all together; however, even with the story boarding he had to cut out a number of scenes in order for the movie to work better. The movie runs 107 minutes and with the extra scenes we would have learned more but the movie would not have worked as well---and would have been longer than necessary. It hurt Shyamalan to cut some of those scenes, but he did it and improved the movie accordingly. This paragraph is put in front of you for two purposes. As the great architect Meis van der Rohe said: "God is in the details." For you to really understand the movie you have to pay attention to the details. The richness of the movie is in the details. But this also reflects upon the key theme of listening in the movie. If you are going to effectively communicate, love, relate to another as a parent, spouse, therapist, then you must pay attention to the details. That is what good listening is all about. The second key purpose of this paragraph is to help you focus on sacrifice and courage. To be creative, to be loving, to listen, to do meaningful things with your life requires sacrifice. Sacrifice requires courage. Cole had courage---he faced his fears. He is able to say to the ghost: "Do you want to tell me something?" He didn't give up and fold; he confronted the dead and reached out to them.
In writing the script the first couple of drafts simply didn't work and were thrown out. Only with the third and fourth draft did he begin seeing the Cole character as a hyper sensitive child. Then he visualized the ending and it all began coming together for Shyamalan. Shyamalan says the theme of his movie is communication. Communication between mother and son, husband and wife, the living and the dead.
Donnie Wahlberg is the actor who enters the story at the beginning as Vincent. Vincent is a former patient of Dr. Crowe's and we see him almost nude in the bathroom of the Crowe home. This is a relatively short but powerful scene. Wahlberg gets totally into it and brings the character painfully alive. Crowe has failed this patient. Vincent screams out in pain: "You failed me. You failed me!" At first Crowe doesn't even remember him and then when he does he apologizes. But it is too late for apologies. Vincent then takes a gun and shoots Dr. Crowe and turns the gun on himself. Wahlberg prepared for this role by losing a lot of weight and trying to really feel the pain of a person who has for years been a freak who saw dead people and who was diagnosed as mentally ill. It was his idea to be nude for the scene and he even improvised some of the lines. He committed to the five minute part 1000% and it comes through.
Toni Collette is the Australian actor who plays Cole's mother Lynn Sear and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. She does a really fine job as the mother and says that the key reason she took the role was the scene she had with her son in the car. If you ask great actors how they are able to do the work that they do so well, they will almost uniformly tell you that the single most important skill of their profession is their ability to listen. While in that car with her "son" Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette is carefully listening to what he says, empathizing with how his character must be feeling, and she then becomes the mother, feels the pain, cries and "acts" so powerfully that her character comes alive on the screen so that we all feel the pain. This is what communication is all about---listening in this way with concentration and empathy.
Other great stories about ghosts and the occult have been turned into movies. This is a theme in the literature of all cultures because everyone is concerned about what happens after a human being dies. Shyamalan was 27 when everything came together for him and he created The Sixth Sense and as he says: "I hope it will happen again." As long as he lives consistent with the messages of this film, then I am sure that it will come together for him again as the films messages will help guide his life just as they have the potential to guide your life.
William Peter Blatty is the author of The Exorcist. (He also wrote the screenplay based on his novel and won the Academy Award for it in 1973). He believes that nature has never created a desire for what is unattainable. If you have a thirst, water is somewhere. If you experience hunger, food exists to meet that desire. He believes the same holds true with an after life. It is a universal craving, desire, need that we want met and he believes, therefore, in an afterworld. Bruce Joel Rubin, author of Ghost and Jacob's Ladder says that he wrote these stories because: "I need to understand what I'm doing here." These authors all believe that at the heart of the answer is our impulse to evolve. If you want to evolve, if you want to better understand the universe and why we are here, if you want a more loved and loving existence as a human being; then I know of no better skill that will help you achieve all of these things than for you to sharpen your communication skills through becoming an ever better listener.