THE SIXTH SENSE
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
With Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, Toni Collette and Olivia Williams
The trailer for THE SIXTH SENSE suggested that it might be either a genuinely spooky ghost story or a New Age therapeutic fantasy. (In fact, that trailer offers several spoilers - one doesn't find out that its child protagonist sees ghosts for 50 minutes - and includes an excerpt from a key scene that takes place only 10 minutes from the end.) Several friends of mine absolutely hated it, so I initially decided that it was feelgood mush. Since I wasn't planning to see it, I went ahead and read Usenet posts revealing that Bruce Willis character is really a ghost. Then I started hearing positive reports from other friends and decided that it was worth seeing after all, but my experience was certainly colored by the fact that I already knew the twist ending. As it turns out, my suspicions were partially justified, but it's a testimony to the film's power that it still retained an air of mystery.
Psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe (Willis) and his wife Anna (Williams) are surprised one night by the intrusion of a desperate ex-patient of Malcom's, who shoots him in the stomach before committing suicide. The following fall, Malcolm begins working with Cole Sear (Osment), a deeply troubled young boy being raised by Lynn (Collette), an over-worked single mom. Although Cole is generally taciturn, he's prone to odd outbursts and violent fantasies. Additionally, something physical seems to be happening to him: his arms and back are marked with scratches and he has an apparent seizure after being locked in a room by bullies at a party.
In a vehemently negative review in TIME OUT NY, Andrew Johnston compared the first half of THE SIXTH SENSE to Andy Warhol's legendary SLEEP, a real-time film of a man sleeping. While this may be hyperbole, it does look as minimalist as Ozu next to most current Hollywood fare, especially this summer's releases. As slow as the pace is, the film moves along well enough that I was never bored. In fact, Shyamalan's willingness to let the audience take our time getting to know the characters without constant prodding feels like a gesture of respect. Nor does he turn the film into a vehicle for Bruce Willis, whose restrained performance is the work of an actor, rather than a star. Its too bad that he doesn't have the courage to follow this austerity all the way through. All too often, he relies on James Newton Howard's score, which alternates between harsh dissonance and lush sentimentality, to force gratuitous tension or emotion out of a scene.
Nevertheless, the first hour of THE SIXTH SENSE skillfully establishes a moody, sepulchral atmosphere, although its impact would be much different - and perhaps stronger - if one went in without knowing exactly whats happening to Cole. However, Shyamalan makes a big mistake by having the ghosts show their faces in the film's second half. The subtlety of Osment's performance renders this half-hearted attempt to depict his turmoil from the inside unnecessary, and while both THE SHINING and Claude Miller's THE CLASS TRIP successfully portray a child's horrific visions, Shayamalan lacks Kubrick and Miller's knack for the lurid: Cole's visions are scary only in so far as they're gross or startling. As a character study, this is mesmerizing; as a horror movie, it's so-so.
The languid pace of THE SIXTH SENSE is an obvious build towards an emotional climax. Two of them, in fact: Cole confesses his ability to see ghosts to Lynn and then Malcolm realizes that he's a ghost himself. Alas, the tease beats the epiphany. If one goes in knowing Malcolm's secret, the clues are easy to spot: Lynn stares right at him without acknowledging his presence, and his apparently estranged wife's distant behavior seems rather bizarre, especially when she ignores him at a restaurant except to mutter "Happy anniversary" dejectedly. Clearly, he and Lynn are just as troubled as Cole. (While Collette's performance is typically impressive, her character is defined almost entirely by her anxieties, and Williams gets very little screen time.) As movies so often suggest, the therapist needs help every bit as much as his patient, and just like Matt Damon in GOOD WILL HUNTING (although far less obnoxiously), Cole helps Malcolm find his way back on the right track. If this heal-'em-all conclusion works for you, I'm sure it sheds new light on the entire film, but it felt like a cheap gimmick out of a TWILIGHT ZONE rerun to me. Of course, I might well have been more moved if I didn't know it was coming, but its New Age overtones would feel off-putting under any circumstances.
Even if THE SIXTH SENSE is frustratingly uneven, I'm heartened that a film this quiet and somber has drawn such a huge audience and generated word-of-mouth positive enough to top the box-office chart for 3 weeks. In light of its success and the way THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT became an unexpected blockbuster, one hopes that Hollywood will realize there's a market for horror movies that aim to do something more than show off special effects and pander to teens in search of cheap laugh. Val Lewton's ghost just might find its way back here.