The Sixth Sense
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams
Running Time:  107 minutes

Summer 1999 started off with Phantom Menace and Austin Powers, but it's ending with a trio of ghost stories: The Haunting (beautiful set, boring story), Blair Witch Project (improvised set, impressive story) and The Sixth Sense, which is simply one of the better movies of the summer.

I have to admit I didn't have high expectations for Bruce Willis' new film, The Sixth Sense. It looked like it was going to be a hokey ghost story overshadowed only by Willis' usual camera-chewing performance. Surprise, surprise. It's in fact a subtle drama with great acting and a compelling narrative. Haley Joel Osment plays Cole, an eight-year-old boy who thinks he sees the dead walking around him, while Willis plays Malcolm Crowe, the child psychologist who tries to help. Their relationship forms the foundation of the film.

Contrary to most ghost flicks, the emphasis here is on telling a story rather than scaring the audience. The movie opens with Crowe and his wife Anna (Olivia Williams, Rushmore) celebrating an award he's received for his work, from the city of Philadelphia no less. But that's the last instance of Willis getting the star treatment. Soon, he's confronted by an old patient whose treatment hasn't worked out terribly well, and then he meets Cole who appears to be suffering the trauma of losing his father.

The movie thankfully doesn't do much with that movie-of-the-week topic. Instead, it focuses on the trust Crowe tries to instill in Cole and, as the film goes on, the bewilderment Crowe experiences in trying to help. Thanks to the best child performance in any recent American movie (foreign films often feature great young actors), the audience not only accepts the premise that the boy thinks he's seeing ghosts but goes along with Willis when he suspects the kid might be telling the truth. Willis' performance is understated in the best way: no scene-stealing or mugging for the camera, just a commitment to the character and the movie.

On top of it all, Osment and Willis have a palpable chemistry. Two scenes are particularly good examples. Early on, Crowe comes to Cole's house. The little boy doesn't want to talk, so Crowe engages him in a mind-reading game. If Cole wins, he can go outside and play; if the psychologist wins, the boy has to sit and talk. The outcome is a fabulous introduction to the characters and their relationship. Then later, Cole has to go to the hospital, where he finally shares his secret with Crowe. The strong acting and interplay of the two characters helps us understand why Willis is willing to go the lengths that he does.

Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan, whose first two features were the low-budget Praying with Anger and Wide Awake, claims that The Sixth Sense is "frightening, disturbing and horrific in the tradition of films like Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion." But The Sixth Sense is nothing like Repulsion, which is surreal and over-the-top while Shyamalan's film is tightly controlled and structured. The only horrific aspects here are the overwrought makeup used on the dead people Cole sees and a couple of "Boo!" scary moments.

Not that I can do any better in the comparison department. It's certainly not like any other ghost story I've seen. In fact, the only recent movies that come to mind are A Simple Plan, which has the same intensity and slow pace, and Sling Blade, which also features a strong older man/young boy friendship.

Though Shyamalan might have trouble categorizing his own movie, he has no trouble directing his film. The acting, as mentioned, is strong across the board. Williams does a fine job of playing a wife who's being neglected by her distracted husband, and Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding, Velvet Goldmine) is great as the single mother who can't understand what is happening to her child. And the dark lighting and cinematography set the tone of suspense and intensity.

Often Hollywood films have trouble bringing this type of a story to a satisfying conclusion. We're either treated to a contrived wrap-up or a roller coaster designed to obscure the film's weaknesses. But the ending is where Sixth Sense truly shines. The friendship of Cole and Crowe takes a surprising turn, but one that throws everything else into sharp relief while also highlighting the theme of redemption.

The Sixth Sense is solid Hollywood filmmaking. Two strong lead actors, a great script and a fine supporting cast make this a late-summer film worth checking out.

J Robert Parks

The most compelling stories are often "ghost stories," and even Jesus himself offered one in the account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Of course, Jesus was also in the business of casting out demons and crushing the devil's head under his foot, which makes him the ultimate supernatural hero! No mere movie star, not even Arnold Swartzenegger, can compare. It would be most interesting to know what Jesus would say of The Sixth Sense.

The highly effective trailer already reveals that the central figure, a young boy named Cole (Haley Joel Osment), sees "dead people," and that Dr. Crowe (Bruce Willis) is the psychologist trying to help him. What the trailer doesn't tell you is the depth of their compelling character interaction and the acting prowess needed to get there--and all this from a genre when characters are usually secondary to the scares. Not so here. In fact, the "dead people" don't show up until half the movie is over, but the taut  psychological aspects that cleverly and almost leisurely unfold in this film are nearly as disturbing. If you're just looking for your typical spooky slash and gore fest, The Sixth Sense could disappoint you. But this exquisitely-told drama with a supernatural edge is far more satisfying. The result is a compelling film that might have made Hitchcock proud.

If Jesus were a movie critic, however, he might see this tales's triumph of ultimate redemption as more in line with misguided pagan and humanistic thinking than his worldview. He'd likely agree that Shyamalan's directing is admirable, the scary bits are truly jump-worthy, Bruce Willis delivers his best, most understated performance to date, and Haley Joel Osment as the troubled young man completely steals the show. If I might be so bold, he might even agree that it was a great ghost story.

Steven S. Baldwin   8/25/99