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The Real Twist in ‘The Sixth Sense’ Is Bruce Willis’ Workaholism

Twenty years later, his perpetually committed child psychologist is the true, heartbreaking center of the M. Night Shyamalan classic

Malcolm’s wife is more impressed with the honor than her husband is. Earlier that evening, he was celebrated by the city of Philadelphia for his excellence in the field of child psychology, and now that they’re home, she wants to take a moment to read the commendation he received, noting how it mentions “his dedication to his work and his continuing efforts to improve the quality of life for countless children and their families.” He tries to make self-deprecating jokes, but Anna won’t have it. 

“This is an important night for us,” she tells him. “Finally, someone is recognizing the sacrifices you’ve made. That you have put everything second, including me, for those families that they’re talking about.” The “including me” has a bit of a sting to it: She’s proud of her husband, but is she also a bit resentful of how he’s ignored her, always putting work ahead of her? The moment lingers and then fades away, one of the many unspoken things that’s part of a larger, ongoing conversation that happens in most marriages. Outwardly, Malcolm accepts her compliments, but his face is a bit of a mask. Is it false modesty? Embarrassment? Is he arrogant? Or does he simply want to deflect all this attention? We’ve just met these people, so it’s hard to know.

When you think of The Sixth Sense, which opened 20 years ago today, your mind probably doesn’t instantly go to its opening scene. More likely, you remember a young Haley Joel Osment saying, “I see dead people” — or the instant where the big twist happens and Malcolm finds out he’s a ghost. Those moments made M. Night Shyamalan’s film iconic, as well as incredibly popular. (It was the second-highest-grossing movie of 1999 and one of the biggest horror movies of all time.) But in the two decades since I first saw The Sixth Sense, I’ve always been haunted by the twist’s implications, which have nothing to do with rug-pulling surprises. When you watch the film now, its tragedy is even more apparent. This is a story about pride and blindness. It’s about a good man so dedicated to his job that he starts to lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s about someone so consumed with his own issues he misses everything else — including the fact that he’s dead.

I was working for a film production company before The Sixth Sense came out, and I still remember when Shyamalan’s hot spec script made the rounds, with every studio frantically bidding to produce the movie from this relative unknown. (His previous film, Wide Awake, wasn’t exactly a barnburner.) My bosses loved the script, telling me how well-written it was but, also, that it contained this incredible twist. Since I didn’t have to read it, I avoided hearing what the surprise was. I waited to see the movie in a theater, like everyone else.

Movie twists are tricky things: They entice us to check out a film, but there can be a letdown afterward. Maybe the twist is too obvious. Maybe the twist doesn’t make any sense. Even if the twist is great, you might feel like you don’t ever need to see the movie again. After all, you know what the surprise is — what everything has been leading to — so it might seem anticlimactic to go through the whole experience one more time. Malcolm’s dead — that’s it, that’s the big secret.

But for me, The Sixth Sense works even better after you know the twist. On a superficial level, subsequent viewings are fun because they allow you to see how Shyamalan hides the twist and also makes it work within the story’s logic. But on a grander, more emotional level, rewatching enhances what’s so poignant about Malcolm’s journey. For most of the film, he thinks he’s there to help a boy named Cole (Osment), who has upsetting cuts on his arms and a generally anxious demeanor. He sees Cole as a do-over for a boy he tried to help a long time ago, Vincent, but failed. Later, as a grownup, Vincent stormed into his house — the same night that Malcolm received that honor — and shot him, later turning the gun on himself. Malcolm couldn’t save Vincent. Maybe he can save Cole. 

But when you rewatch The Sixth Sense, you realize it’s not about his attempt to help Cole — it’s about Malcolm’s growing realization of what he’s become and how he got there.

Bruce Willis plays Malcolm, and it’s one of his finest performances — so controlled and so sad. Malcolm is a smart, sensitive psychologist. The more time we spend with him, the more aware we are that he’s not arrogant, but he is dedicated to his job. Intriguingly, though, we don’t quite know why. Helping children is a noble calling, of course, but Shyamalan intentionally leaves his background murky. Malcolm doesn’t have some terrible trauma from his childhood, no clear inner wound he’s hoping to heal through his work. All we know about him is what Anna, played by Olivia Williams, says to him: He’s put everything second, including her, to help these children. And yet, he and Anna have no children of their own. That fact is never mentioned in The Sixth Sense, but their absence is striking — it’s as if he’s been so busy caring for other families, he never made time to start his own.

As astute as he is as a psychologist, though, there’s a myopia to the man. From movies and literature, we’ve come to assume that dead people are aware of the fact that they’ve died. But Malcolm is so wrapped up in his sense of himself — which has been challenged by the fact that he failed Vincent — that he’s stunningly ignorant of his situation. If you revisit The Sixth Sense, pay close attention to how Shyamalan places him in scenes with characters other than Cole (who can see him). Whether it’s around Anna, Cole’s mom Lynn (Toni Collette) or random people at Cole’s play or a funeral service, Malcolm is always withdrawn, so focused on Cole (or himself) that it never dawns on him that the other people don’t see him. 

Yet upon first viewing, we’re as oblivious as Malcolm. We think he’s alive but simply removed — he has the soothing serenity of, well, a movie psychologist, a profession that’s always counted on to save the day and provide a way for the troubled main character to achieve his personal breakthrough. Ironically, that’s also how Malcolm views himself. He can save Cole — he knows he can. He can be the hero.

But Malcolm’s assumptions are wrong, especially when it comes to Anna. In a rare moment of lowering his guard, he confesses to Cole that she’s been distant ever since he was shot. He blames himself, but he’s convinced he can fix it, even though she never seems to bother interacting with him. When he comes home after visiting with Cole, Anna doesn’t say hello. When he’s in their house’s basement office going through his notes, she treats him like he isn’t there, becoming increasingly attracted to one of her coworkers who occasionally stops by. He interprets all of this as her declining interest in their marriage — and also her growing frustration that he puts work before her. 

When he shows up late for their anniversary dinner, he tries to explain. “I know that I’ve been a little distant,” Malcolm says. “I know that it makes you mad. I just feel like I’m being given a second chance, and I don’t want it to slip away.” He wants her to understand how much Cole’s case means to him — it’s a very male-movie-character thing, the obligatory scene where the husband tells his long-suffering wife that, damn it, what he’s doing is far more important than the two of them — but his words fall on deaf ears. Not because she’s stopped loving him — it’s because he’s not really there. Just like he wasn’t when he was alive. 

Knowing all this when rewatching The Sixth Sense doesn’t make Malcolm’s behavior seem foolish. Instead, it adds pathos to his dilemma. In death, he has carried on being the person he was when he was among the living. I don’t pretend to know how it is for women, but I feel like among men (and I include myself in this generalization), there’s a certain pride that comes from being obsessive about one’s work. The job might be demanding, draining, impossible in certain ways, but soon our identity gets wrapped up in it. Our work defines us, and so, we begin to see everything through that perspective. 

I imagine it’s even more fraught for people who provide care to others. Malcolm has built his reputation on helping children — on being good at his job. It’s honorable, but it’s also a trap. After Vincent kills him, Malcolm stays on Earth in part because he can’t accept that he failed his former patient. That failure is so intense that it’s blinded him to his reality. And so, he just gets back on the treadmill to help Cole. He doesn’t know any other way. He’s too busy to be dead.

When the Academy Award nominations were announced several months later, The Sixth Sense received six Oscar nods, including Best Picture. But in the acting categories, only Osment and Collette were nominated. They’re both terrific in the film, but their roles are a little more emotionally demonstrative than Willis’, which had to be practically invisible. Actually, it was fitting that Willis didn’t get nominated. He’s playing a man who isn’t there — to notice what he’d accomplished as an actor would have been antithetical to his intention.

As a result, Malcolm still feels like an undervalued character in The Sixth Sense, just as Willis’ heartbreaking performance has never gotten the praise it deserves. Watching the movie now, you might feel the desire to help Malcolm — to tell him to wake up and recognize what’s happened, to make him understand that he’s lost everything. But the living cannot help the dead, unless you’re Cole — and even he can only do so much. Malcolm cares so much about this boy, listening to him so closely, but he doesn’t actually hear. 

In a sense, we in the audience didn’t hear, either. Twenty years later, “I see dead people” remains the most quoted and parodied line from The Sixth Sense. But we don’t remember that Cole isn’t unburdening himself so much as he’s trying to warn Malcolm when he says those four words. And we forget what Cole says afterward. “[They’re] walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.”

That ought to be a warning to all of us, too. We’re so wrapped up in our jobs and our ambitions and our idea of how our lives should be. We’re all walking around like regular people. But how much do we really know about ourselves? How much do we really see? Who are we putting second that we shouldn’t? Malcolm’s fate could be our own. By all accounts, the guy had a pretty amazing life. It’s only after it’s gone that he finally learns to appreciate it.