Cinema is full of shocking twists and startling revelations, from Darth Vader being Luke’s deadbeat dad to Nicole Kidman being a ghost the whole time.
But over the last few years, it’s undeniable that shocking third act twists have become, and I’m being Frank, a bit garbage.
This is mostly because it’s actually really difficult to pull off a satisfying twist, one that rewards the clever clogs in the audience without being super obvious and not cheating viewers by having it come out of nowhere.
This leaves us in a dull, shock-less, cinematic wasteland where moviegoers either sit there unsurprised by the revelation the bad guy was, in fact, our hero’s mum’s yoga partner the whole time, or they don’t care because the film’s writers forgot to even hint that the hero’s mum liked yoga.
Bizarre ramblings aside though there are plenty of films which manage to surprise people with a clever twist, and the first film I remember leaving me slack-jawed in surprise was M. Night Shyamalan’s spooky masterpiece The Sixth Sense.
In case you’ve not seen it prepare for some 19 years old spoilers, The Sixth Sense tells the story of Cole Sear (see what they did there) a troubled young man who’s been left a social pariah because, and I’m quoting him here, ‘He sees dead people’.
Enter Bruce Willis’ sceptical child therapist, Malcolm Crowe, who’s got some experience dealing with this particular delusion. Over the course of the film, Malcolm slowly comes to realise Cole’s telling the truth and he helps the little boy deal with the spirits that torment him.
But just as you think Cole’s earned his happy ending the film twists the knife revealing Malcolm was, in fact, a ghost the whole time who like the other ghosts hadn’t realised he’d popped his clogs.
The Sixth Sense has stayed with me over the years, like a wailing spirit on Cole’s shoulder, because unlike other films with similarly great surprises I was old enough to see it before the twist had entered into pop-culture.
It’s why things like the reveal of Keyser Soze have never really stayed with me, as great as they are, because I knew going in to the film that Kevin Spacey was playing the disguised criminal mastermind.
But with The Sixth Sense, the surprise that Bruce Willis is actually a ghost blew my 10-year-old mind. Even now as an adult when I watch the film I get shivers when Brucey finally clocks the fact he’s been dead the whole time.
What makes it so great though isn’t the reveal, it’s the build-up which is executed masterfully and allows an astute viewer to piece together the mystery before it’s explicitly stated.
Now there’s some relatively obvious stuff like no other character directly talking to Malcolm through the entire film or him only wearing the clothes he wore in the opening of the film.
M. Night even had the stones to have the camera zoom in on Bruce Willis’ face when Cole utters his iconic ‘I see dead people’ line, telegraphing to everyone watching that Malcolm’s not what he seems.
But did you know that there’s actually a second twist in the film that most people missed because they were so distracted by the reveal that Bruce is a ghost?
Cole Sear knew the whole time that Malcolm wasn’t his child therapist and that he was, in fact, a ghost from the moment he first met him outside his mum’s apartment and ran away from him.
How do we know this? Well it’s pretty obvious in hindsight because Cole is terrified of Malcom when they first meet.
Take the scene where Cole meets Malcolm in his apartment. As he comes through the door he freezes, his eyes locked on the therapist. Not once does he ask his mother who he is because he knows she can’t see him.
Following that Malcolm asks Cole if want to play a game, Cole doesn’t actually speak to him during the game just nodding or shaking his head.
We the audience presume it’s because Cole’s scared of this strange doctor but he’s in fact worried what this ghost’s going to do to him.
When he tells Malcolm ‘he’s nice’ but he can’t help him we’re led to believe that it’s because Cole doesn’t believe doctors can help him but it’s actually because he knows Malcolm’s a ghost.
Now you may bethinking that this is just the behaviour of a kid social anxious kid being confronted by an adult – who bears a suspicious resemblance to action star Bruce Willis – he doesn’t know and you’d be right except for one little thing.
Cole explaining his sixth sense to Malcom pans out:
Cole Sear: I see dead people.
Malcolm Crowe: In your dreams? [Shakes head]
Malcolm Crowe: While you’re awake? [Cole nods]
Malcolm Crowe: Dead people like, in graves? In coffins?
Cole Sear: 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.
Now this is obviously the set up to the reveal at the end, Malcolm doesn’t realise he’s dead and sees what he wants to see, but it hints at something far more sinister.
Cole says ‘They see what they want to see’ not ‘I see what they want to see’ and through the film all ghosts he encounters look the way they did when they died and bare the injuries that killed them.
Even Malcolm, when he finally realises he’d dead and stops seeing what he wants to see, looks down to find his shirt’s covered in blood from where he was shot.
That’s how Cole has seen Malcolm the whole time, not as a normal kindly doctor, but as a man with an obvious gunshot wound to the stomach. No wonder the poor kid ran away from him.
If you watch that scene back as well you can actually see Cole glance down to Malcom’s stomach as he says this, he’s literally looking at the gun shot wound as he says ‘they only see what they want to see’.
Not only that Cole doesn’t just see the ghosts, he can physically feel them in the room, like he’s got some horribly ghoulish radar and not once do we see him confuse a dead person with a living one.
He even explains how it feels to Malcom when he asks if he’s ever felt ‘the prickly things ‘on the back of his neck before telling him that’s ‘them’.
So by now it should be obvious that Cole always knew Malcolm was dead because his ghost radar alerted him to it and he could see the wound that killed him but there’s one final piece of evidence.
Director M. Night. Shyamalan answered this question at a fan event saying ‘yes, of course’ Cole knew and who’d know better than the guy who wrote the script.
You may wonder why Cole never just told Malcolm that he’s dead but throughout the film Cole never tells the ghosts they’re dead, not even the ones he’s relatively friendly with.
We can only guess why but it’s probably because he’d frightened of upsetting them, after all we see that the spirits that plague him are more than capable of hurting him.
So there we have it The Sixth Sense‘ secret twist, Cole knew the whole time that Bruce Willis was dead we were just too wraped up in Malcolm realising he’d died to notice.
Oh and by the way I was never Frank…
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More of a concept than a journalist, Tom Percival was forged in the bowels of Salford University from which he emerged grasping a Masters in journalism.
Since then his rise has been described by himself as ‘meteoric’ rising to the esteemed rank of Social Editor at UNILAD as well as working at the BBC, Manchester Evening News, and ITV.
He credits his success to three core techniques, name repetition, personality mirroring, and never breaking off a handshake.