Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Great Horror Performances: Toni Collette in THE SIXTH SENSE

by Adam Riske
Look at my face. This is a great performance.

The Sixth Sense is a movie people almost ruined for me. It became all about the twist ending and it was judged almost exclusively on how clever the viewer was and not the film itself. Did you get the twist before it was revealed? Yes, then I guess the movie is stupid because you’re so smart. Did you not get the twist? Then it’s the greatest movie ever made but for no reason other than it surprised you and you never get surprised. The conversation about the movie The Sixth Sense has always irked me. There’s so much more to get into, but it never seems to happen. In my humble opinion, The Sixth Sense is a great horror movie because, like The Exorcist, it also works as a drama and a character study and doesn’t rely on its twist ending to be memorable. The twist is the appeal in the first and second viewing (does it play fair?), but in the third viewing onward I found a lot of great emotional resonance to keep me coming back.

The Sixth Sense is fortunate to have three terrific lead performances. Bruce Willis has rarely been this good. He has three modes – Action Bruce, Snarky Bruce and Quiet Bruce. The Sixth Sense is my favorite Quiet Bruce performance. Unlike a lot of his more recent work, he seems engaged and trying to give an A-effort in The Sixth Sense. Haley Joel Osment is off-the-charts great in one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards for this performance and it does just that – it supports and props up the other performances as well as being a standout. I wish he had a more prolific career as an adult actor, but it seems he’s become a sort of casting gimmick mostly. It’s too bad. Osment’s other main scene partner is Toni Collette, and that's who I want to highlight for the rest of the column. She is magnificent in The Sixth Sense and, despite being also Oscar nominated for her performance, never seemed to get as much of the accolades as her co-stars or Shyamalan did for his “debut”/Hollywood reinvention. Without Toni Collette as Cole’s (Haley Joel Osment) mother, the movie is only half as effective. This was the first movie I ever saw her in and it’s made me a fan the rest of her career. She was just never the story or the thing anyone talked about first when discussing The Sixth Sense.
The Australian actress (Is every actress in Australia great? I think they are) very convincingly plays a working-class Philadelphia mom who loves her son but is also on the verge of breaking down. More so than in 1999 (when the The Sixth Sense was released), I relate in recent viewings to the Collette character the most in the film. She’s a very good mother and protective of her son, but also powerless because she can’t help him until he tells her what is truly going on. The way she plays these scenes is remarkable. She’s direct in that it’s just the two of them, so their dynamic is just as much peers as it is mother and son, but also indirect in having Cole focus on positive things when he’s at home instead of mulling over the bad things happening to him in school with his classmates. Collette does a great job of portraying an adult who has a kid she wants to protect but is frustratingly unable to reach. She just doesn’t know how to handle him. I’m not a parent, but there are kids in my extended family and I totally understand not always being equipped to calm a kid down because their troubles are based on something you have no prior knowledge or personal experience dealing with. It’s a powerless and desperate feeling and Toni Collette wears it the entire movie. Collette’s performance in The Sixth Sense is a fully developed, lived-in and realistic person.

The show-stopper is Collette’s great scene at the end of The Sixth Sense, with Haley Joel Osment in the car as they are stopped in traffic due to an auto accident. It’s a beautiful and powerful scene with a lot of changing emotions as Cole finally opens up to his mother about the secret he’s been hiding – that he can see and communicate with ghosts. Her reaction is amazing – at first she’s confused, then freaked out, then needs a minute to process this unbelievable information and finally grateful of her son’s “gift” and relieved because she finally knows what is going on. The writing of the scene, the Osment performance and Collette’s range of emotions all work together beautifully to provide one of the most cathartic character arcs ever put into a horror movie. And then there’s another roller coaster of release with the Bruce Willis subplot after that. By then, this movie turns me into an emotional wreck. It’s like Aliens but for feelings.
The Sixth Sense is a movie like Pulp Fiction that becomes inaccessible at times because it was so tread over in its initial release. Unlike with Pulp, though, where viewers dug in, I don’t feel like that ever happened with The Sixth Sense. It was more about the twist and the revelatory feeling that M. Night Shyamalan was the next big thing. I love The Sixth Sense and Toni Collette’s performance is a big reason why it's an all-timer for me.


  1. Never noticed that Toni was dressed like Velma from Scooby-Doo until you posted that screenshot.

  2. Just watched this a couple of weeks ago and I agree 100 percent. I only remembered "the twist" in this movie before my rewatch (the first in at least a decade), but there was so much more. Collette is just fantastic.

  3. I have always been a big fan for similar reasons to you
    The scene in the car always gets me every time. Me and you blubbering together into the Abyss.
    Now and then I actually feel the stress of life and I purposely watch films like this knowing I will cry as a form of release for myself to help relax and I weirdly feel better afterwards

  4. We could not be more on the same wavelength. I recently tried to get some friends of mine to watch this and they didn't want to because of the twist being the main thing people remember about it, so why bother!

    The car scene by itself can serve as an incredible short story on its own.

    Love this movie!

  5. I remember Collette was nominated for an Oscar for this performance, and I thought she deserved it! The car scene is such tremendous acting, and she was SO young in this! Great post.