Saturday, August 02, 2014

Now, THAT Was a Surprise Ending

Cole (Haley Joel Osment): I see dead people.

I rate the effectiveness of a supernatural thriller by how long it takes me to figure out what is really going on, and I cease to be surprised by what I see on the screen.

I never reached that point with M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense," which premiered 15 years ago today. I was completely fished in, and its now–famous surprise twist ending took me completely by — well, surprise.

I wasn't alone. Film critic Roger Ebert said he was "blind–sided by the ending."

Initially, it appeared to be the story of an isolated young boy (Haley Joel Osment) and the psychologist who was trying to help him (Bruce Willis). Willis' character had been shot by a former patient, who then turned the gun on himself, and the next thing the audience knew, Willis, seemingly healed physically but struggling emotionally, was treating Osment's character, whose case was similar to the case of that former patient.

Osment's character told Willis he could see ghosts. They walk among the living, he said. They don't know that they are deceased.

Willis' advice was for him talk to the ghosts and see if he could help them with what seemed to be unfinished business that they had to complete before they could go on to whatever was next. Osment was dubious; the ghosts scared him, but he decided to give it a try.

In his review, film critic Roger Ebert observed that "[i]t has long been believed that children are better than adults at seeing ghosts; the barriers of skepticism and disbelief are not yet in place."

I had a general understanding of that at the time, and I'm sure other moviegoers did, too. It made the story more plausible, more accessible — although I have no memory of personally conversing with ghosts as a child.

A breakthrough for Osment's character was his communication with a girl who had become ill and died. She indicated that she wanted him to take a box, which contained a video tape, to her funeral, which he did, and he gave the tape to the girl's father.

The tape, which had been made clandestinely, showed the girl's mother deliberately giving the girl tainted food, causing her death. That apparently was what was needed for the girl's soul to be at peace.

After that, Osment was able to interact with his schoolmates better than he had before, and he seemed to have learned to co–exist with the ghosts. Willis, on the other hand, was still struggling. His wife seemed to pay him no attention, and she had been the model of a devoted wife before he was shot. He was baffled.

Until he came home one night and found his wife sleeping on the couch. In her sleep, his wife asked her husband why he left her, and his wedding ring slipped from her hand. It was only then that Willis realized he had not been wearing his ring, that he was, in fact, one of the dead people Osment had been seeing.

(I hope I haven't given away the surprise ending to anyone — but it was in the theaters 15 years ago, after all!)

Just before Willis' (and the audience's) revelation, Osment and his on–screen mother (Toni Collette) had something of a reconciliation.

She had been skeptical of whatever he was experiencing all along.

One day, while they were stuck in a traffic jam, Osment's character decided the time was right to tell her what was going on, and he did. She didn't want to believe him when he said he was visited by his grandmother, but he began to convince his mother when he told her a story from her own childhood that she, apparently, had never told him before.

The clincher was when he said that his grandmother had told him his mother had visited the grave and had asked a question. Her answer, Osment said, had been "Every day," but he didn't know the question. A visibly emotional Collette told him.

Osment, wrote Ebert, "is a very good actor in a film where his character possibly has more lines than anyone else. He's in most of the scenes, and he has to act in them — this isn't a role for a cute kid who can stand there and look solemn in reaction shots."

That's true, although Osment did do essentially that in his previous important movie, "Forrest Gump." Of course, he was only 5 years old when that movie was made. He was 10 when he made "The Sixth Sense" and, presumably, more mature.

Ebert had more praise for Osment's performance — and Willis'. "Although the tendency is to notice how good he is, not every adult actor can play heavy dramatic scenes with a kid and not seem to condescend (or, even worse, to be subtly coaching and leading him)," Ebert wrote. "Willis can."

"The Sixth Sense" was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Osment) and Best Supporting Actress (Collette) but won none.