The Sixth Sense
Screenplay : M. Night Shyamalan
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Bruce Willis (Malcolm Crowe), Haley Joel Osment (Cole), Toni Collette (Lynn Sear), Olivia Williams (Anna Crowe), Donnie Wahlberg (Vincent Gray), Mischa Barton (Kyra Collins), Trevor Morgan (Tommy Tommisimo)
M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" is about a little boy named Cole who has been bestowed with a terrible gift: the ability the see dead people. He sees them walking around everywhere, and most of them are unaware that they are dead. Many of them are angry, such as an abused housewife who eventually slit her wrists; some of them are sad, such as a little girl who spent the last two years of her life wasting away in sickness, or a teenage boy who accidentally shot himself with his father's gun.
But, one of the virtue's of writer/director Shyamalan's film, which is something of a romantic horror story, is that these ghosts are not seen for the first hour of the film. And, when we do get to see them, they are presented with frightening simplicity. All one needs to do is compare the consistent effectiveness of "The Sixth Sense" with the wobbly, off-and-on effectiveness of the big-budget FX extravaganza, "The Haunting." Shyamalan's ghosts, when they do appear, are both ghastly and pathetic, and you can see why a 10-year-old boy would be so terrified of them.
Before diving headlong into the visual horrors of the story, Shyamalan develops the relationship between Cole (Haley Joel Osment) and a child psychiatrist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), who is dealing with his own problems. At the beginning of the film, one of Dr. Crowe's former child patients (Donnie Wahlberg) breaks into Dr. Crowe's house and shoots him before committing suicide, claiming that Dr. Crowe let him down as a child. After this tragic event, Dr. Crowe is no longer the same, and the relationship with his wife (Olivia Williams) deteriorates to the point that they are almost strangers.
When Dr. Crowe meets Cole, he begins to sense similarities between the young boy and the distressed man who shot him. Could they both have been afflicted with the same ability? Dr. Crowe, being a rational doctor, tries to explain Cole's paranoia and visions of the paranormal with medical reasoning, but it doesn't work. It isn't until he believes in Cole that he can help the boy.
"The Sixth Sense" is the third feature from India-born writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. I have not seen his previous work, but the strength of this film speaks a great deal about his talent and future potential. His screenplay and direction slowly build the suspense and horror; he isn't in a rush to get there, and when he pulls the final rug out from under you in the last five minutes, it has been worth the deliberate set-up and ominous pacing.
"The Sixth Sense" is a unique, frightening movie that is never gratuitous or obvious. It uses the same kind of terror in everyday surroundings created the chills in "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "The Exorcist" (1973). The film takes place in Philadelphia, and a scene in Cole's school establishes the fact that it is an old city with a great deal of history; in other words, there are ample opportunities to find lost souls still wandering the streets, ranging from people who died only moments ago in a car wreck to accused witches who were hung back in the 16th century.
In the starring role, Bruce Willis works well as Dr. Crowe. For me, he may not have been the best choice for the role, perhaps because I still have lingering memories of his awful turn as another psychiatrist in the atrocious "Color of Night" (1994). Still, he plays the part with dignity and a sympathetic ear, and he is never distracting. Toni Collette is also quite good as Cole's mother, a recently divorced woman who is torn because her child is suffering (both mentally and physically--apparently the angry ghosts can hurt Cole), and she doesn't know how to help him.
However, the actor who is most memorable here is 11-year-old Haley Joel Osment, who has already starred in 14 movies and TV shows. There are so many pitfalls for child actors in lead roles, and Osment manages to side-step all of them. He is completely and utterly convincing as Cole, a little boy who has spent his entire life terrified by what he can see that others cannot. He makes us believe in both his ability to see ghosts, and in his relationship with Dr. Crowe, both of which are essential to the movie's success.
Osment turns Cole into a warm and tangible character; he delivers many of his lines in a tired, hushed voice that speaks to his weariness in life, and he never falls into cutesiness to get sympathy. Had Osment not been so good as Cole, "The Sixth Sense" could have easy buckled and fallen apart. But, with his strong central performance and Shyamalan's careful direction, the movie emerges as smart, entertaining, and frightening.
©1999 James Kendrick