Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tyler Durden says, "Watch These Twice!"

Films: The Sixth Sense, Fight Club
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop (The Sixth Sense), DVD from personal collection on laptop (Fight Club).

I am always suspicious of people whose names appear to be too perfect. M. Night Shyamalan, for instance, writes and directs movies about disturbing, dark things, and his middle name is “Night.” It’s a little too perfect. I prefer to imagine that his real middle name is something like Gary and that he changed it for effect. Maybe I’m wrong and that’s his real name. If so, I apologize to Mr. Shyamalan, but if I’m right…

Regardless, Shyamalan tends to create movies that use a shock ending or a huge twist as their stock in trade. It’s what initially made him famous with the release of The Sixth Sense, and what viewers of his movies always look for with every new one. David Fincher’s films don’t necessarily have that problem, but he doesn’t always shy away from them either, and never more effectively than in Fight Club. These two films depend in some way on the big reveal, or the big surprise to get to the end. Because of that, they’re nearly impossible to discuss without giving up that big reveal.


The magical moment of The Sixth Sense is not when young Cole (Haley Joel Osment) says the now-famous “I see dead people” line. Instead, it’s the big reveal when we discover that Dr. Crowe (Bruce Willis) didn’t survive the attack by his former patient at the start of the movie. It’s a moment that works and works brilliantly. Some people like to claim that they saw the end coming, that they knew all along, and I don’t believe them. It’s brilliantly handled throughout the film.

Dr. Crowe appears to interact with people around him, and at times, those people appear to interact with him as well, but this is something we do ourselves in the watching of the movie. It’s on the second viewing that it becomes evident that his wife really doesn’t see him, that he never really speaks with Cole’s mother (Toni Collette), and that he really doesn’t ever interact with anyone but Cole himself.

Because of this, watching The Sixth Sense a second time is an entirely different experience than watching it the first time. Once you’re aware of what the great secret behind story is, you can see all of the foreshadowing that Shyamalan put there, which allows the film to work at a second level. It still functions as a thriller, but the scary moments are far less so once you also know what it is the spirits Cole sees are after.

The same is true of Fight Club. Here, of course, the big reveal moment is when it becomes evident that the narrator (Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) are actually the same person. Interestingly, though, this doesn’t so much change the view of the entire movie as it does the single character of Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). On a first viewing, Marla is, bluntly, a crazy bitch who acts not only as Tyler’s special friend in the bedroom but also as a constant thorn in the side of the narrator. On a second viewing, knowing that the two men are sharing the same body, Marla becomes the most sympathetic character in the film. Instead of her driving the narrator insane, the narrator himself is treating her like garbage.

And here is where the two movies diverge for me completely. The Sixth Sense is brilliant in its own way, mostly because of the expert handling of that shock reveal. There are legitimately enough clues in the film to see that Dr. Crowe is one of the spirits haunting Cole, but this is handled deftly enough that it isn’t obvious until a second viewing. This is not as true in Fight Club, where the clues are much less obvious.


In addition to the secret surprise ending, The Sixth Sense trades on a few tremendous scares and a couple of iconic moments. The most famous line from the film, arguably one of the greatest of the last 20 years or so, is the young boy lying in a hospital bed, saying, “I see dead people” to his psychologist. Other scenes rank highly, though. Cole sitting in his tent, seeing his breath in the air made freezing by the presence of a ghost, the clothespins holding the blankets together snapping off one by one, for instance, is still effective. Once we as the audience realize that Cole’s seeing of dead people is reality and not insanity, we begin to accept their presence regardless of how terrifying that presence might be.

But the very major twist at the end of the film that makes The Sixth Sense so iconic as a movie, and what made it work so well, is also the very thing that makes further rewatching of the movie less interesting. The first time gives us the surprise, the second gives us the chance to pick up on all of the dropped hints…and after that, there are no surprises left.

It reminds me of the Shirley Jackson story “The Lottery.” I can remember being assigned that for the first time in school and being surprised at the way the story ended. Then I was assigned the story a second time by a different teacher the next year in school. And like The Sixth Sense, it was a completely different story the second time around. And then I was assigned it again. And again. And again. Finally, the last time I was assigned that story in a class, I came back the next day and commented to the class at large that I found the story funny. The rest of the class didn’t see it, but I had read that story so many times, over and over, that it had lost its ability to surprise me or frighten me. The Sixth Sense is like that. After a couple of viewings, there is nothing more for it to give.

Often, two different movie companies in Hollywood will release very similar films at almost the exact same time. Armageddon and Deep Impact, for instance, or Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Roughly a month after The Sixth Sense came out, another film with similar themes was released. Stir of Echoes is also about a young boy who sees dead people and is compelled to help them. Sadly, Stir of Echoes was lost in the furor around The Sixth Sense despite the fact that it is in many ways a much better movie. The young boy is far more tragic, there is no reveal that prevents multiple rewatchings, and the ending is so existentially terrifying that, at least for me, it is also significantly more affecting.

Fight Club doesn’t have this problem. While the movie is different a second time, it also continues to reveal little subtleties every time it is watched. Fight Club works not because of a particular piece of cinematic sleight of hand, but because it is about far more than just the secret it carries. Fight Club is all about the irony, not the shock.

What makes Fight Club tick is the disparity between Tyler Durden’s spoken philosophy and the reality of what that philosophy becomes in practice. At one point, in an impassioned speech, Tyler says to the audience, “You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet.” It’s a good, solid philosophy, one that I find fairly life affirming. I am more than my job and my car. But over the course of the movie, when Tyler’s and the narrator’s personal path of self destruction gets truly underway and they begin Project Mayhem, the men who have decided to be more than the contents of their wallet become something far less. While they may be more than the contents of their wallets and more than their cars, at the center of Project Mayhem, they all dress the same way, all look the same, and have even surrendered their names. In trying to be something other than what society wants, they instead become less than they were, a nearly perfect irony. It’s an irony foreshadowed by the narrator’s taking a different fake name at every support group he goes to.

Beyond this, Fight Club features a narrator capable of the most staggering observations, most of which are tossed off as blithe asides, simply thrown away and yet worth remembering. It’s a movie worthy of studying simply because the observations are fascinating and the way in which they are revealed is so forthright and upfront that there is nothing else like it. How can you ignore lines like, “If I did have a tumor, I’d name it Marla. Marla. The little scratch on the roof of your mouth that would heal if only you could stop tonguing it, but you can’t.”

So ultimately, Fight Club works better because it’s a movie that can be watched over and over, while The Sixth Sense really doesn’t function well after the second viewing. It’s worth noting that after directing Fight Club, director David Fincher went on to direct Panic Room, Zodiac, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t done anything but, in general, disappoint his audience since the release of The Sixth Sense.

Why to watch The Sixth Sense: A few iconic moments and the line “I see dead people.”
Why not to watch: You’ve already seen it twice or you’ve seen the superior Stir of Echoes.

Why to watch Fight Club: It’s made of equal parts awesome and rock and roll.
Why not to watch: Because you’re a lily-livered Nancy boy.


  1. Love this review. And I love your ‘reason to not watch’ Fight Club – my second favourite (though entirely more watchable than my first) movie ever.

  2. It just misses my top five, but certainly lands in my top 10.

  3. Just saw Fight Club for the first time. It had been spoiled for me, unfortunately. So I never had that "moment" with it. My review for it, which I've written but haven't posted yet (I do that - I have a backlog of stuff I need to post), is entirely focused on everything but the spoiler, because it had no impact on me. But man, did I ever find a lot to talk about. There is tremendous depth in "Fight Club" on many levels: narrative, characters, cinematography, humor.

    But truth be told, I'm kinda pissed I had it spoiled.

    1. The good thing is that Fight Club still works even with a spoiler. This is a very rewatchable film because it is so deep in so many ways.

      There are few films that tap into that generalized malaise as well as this film does. Everyone is pissed off about something, and Fight Club tells us all that it's okay, as long as you do something (anything) about it.