The Sixth Sense

The Sixth Sense is a moving and contemplative film that ranks with the best of the year, a surprise in view of the youth and inexperience of its 29-year-old writer/director, M. Night Shyamalan

Child Psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a man in decline. A former child patient breaks into Crowe’s Philadelphia row house and rages at him for not having helped solve his psychological problems years before. He then produces a gun, shoots Crowe, then kills himself. The following fall, Crowe’s wounds appear to have healed more than his psyche. He’s depressed and moody, his marriage is strained, but he’s determined to help a new young patient.

Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) appears to have some of the same symptoms and emotional problems as the patient who committed suicide; Crowe sees helping him as a way of making amends. Cole’s problem: he sees dead people who want him to do things for them. He also steals religious artifacts and mutters in Latin. Malcolm suspects schizophrenia or dementia. Over the course of the story a symbiotic relationship develops between them, and Crowe and Cole help each other deal with their individual inner (and outer) demons.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Willis gives perhaps the most restrained and thoughtful performance of his career, and Toni Colette (Muriel’s Wedding, Clockwatchers) goes far beyond typical single-Mom stereotypes to make Cole’s mother a complex model of determination, caring, and bewilderment.

But the true star turn here belongs to Haley Joel Osment (Forrest Jr. in Forrest Gump). His performance would be notable from an actor of any age, but from an eleven-year-old it is nothing short of astonishing. It’s the diminutive but sturdy pillar that supports the entire film. There’s a scene where Cole has been frightened, and he wordlessly changes expressions – from fear, to determination, and finally peace. A difficult feat for an actor regardless of age or experience, but Osment pulls it off like Olivier. He’ll be a contender at Oscar nomination time. While his role is of lead importance, don’t be surprised if he’s nominated in the Supporting Actor category simply because of his youth.

Shyamalan was born in India and raised in Philadelphia. He pays homage to his adopted home town with scenes that bring out the dark and ominous atmosphere of old historic buildings. It’s a slowly paced film, but unhurried and calm as opposed to sluggish – Shyamalan gives both scenes and actors the time they need to fully develop before moving on.

The Sixth Sense also contains one of the biggest plot surprises since The Crying Game. Sometimes movies that end with a twist have cheated along the way – as in The Spanish Prisoner, where events shown in flashback are presented differently than they were originally. But here the surprise is arrived at honestly. The clues to later developments are all present; you just have to know where and when to look. The net result is that when the surprise is delivered and explained you feel enlightened rather than cheated, like you’ve just been shown the secret of a particularly clever slight of hand.

The ad campaign for The Sixth Sense promotes it as a shock-a-minute scare-fest, which is misleading. While there are certainly some frightening individual scenes, the film is more thought-provoking and evocative than chilling. It’s a bit disappointing that its promoters felt that a film that makes you think and feel and think some more was somehow less appealing than one that just periodically scares the hell out of you.

Bob Aulert