Hollywood seems firmly locked in the grip of ghost fever these days. Jan de Bont's special effects-saturated remake of The Haunting scored a solid opening at the box office last month. The Blair Witch Project is the rage of the day, commanding unprecedented attention at theaters and on the Internet (and soon in bookstores, record stores and comic book shops). Just around the corner is Kevin Bacon's spectral thriller, Stir of Echoes. Somewhere on the horizon lies the remake of William Castle's exploitation classic The House on Haunted Hill. In the meantime, we'll have to satiate ourselves with The Sixth Sense, the modest but potent Bruce Willis chiller that floated into theaters last weekend.
Willis is in fine non-action film form as expert child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe. After a soul-crushing incident with a suicidal ex-patient (the hideously unrecognizable -- but surprisingly effective -- ex-New Kid Donnie Wahlberg), Crowe retreats into his own personal hell. After a year of losing all professional confidence and growing increasingly distant from his lovely wife (Olivia Williams), Crowe gets the chance to work with another troubled young child. Eleven-year-old Cole Sear (the freakishly talented Haley Joel Osment) isn't your ordinary unbalanced child, however. Cole has a secret. He can see dead people. He can hear dead people. The one thing he can't do is make them go away.
Of course, our psychologist hero doesn't believe a word of this. He's just trying to figure out the real reason for Cole's haunting visions. Is it child abuse? Is it a chemical imbalance? Of course, we viewers know the real reason for Cole's haunting visions. ... Ghosts, and lots of 'em!
The Sixth Sense is the writing/directing work of Philadelphia-based filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan came out of the gate last year with the destined-for-greatness kiddy drama The Wide Awake. Unfortunately, despite a big pre-release build-up by distributor Miramax, the film met with critical cool and audience indifference and disappeared after the briefest of runs. Not one to waste his efforts, Shyamalan has recycled some of that film's concepts into his latest effort. Like The Sixth Sense, The Wide Awake dealt with a troubled young boy in a Catholic school uniform who is obsessed with both death and religious iconography. The main difference, of course, is that the kid in Wide Awake had to contend with Rosie O'Donnell as a wise-cracking nun (a horror far greater than any ambulatory ghoul).
The Sixth Sense is a surprisingly low-key psychological thriller. A palpable air of dread hangs over the proceedings, making audiences ripe for the frightening. Although there are some expert shocks throughout, The Sixth Sense is more interested in slow-building chills than jump-out-of-your-seat thrills.
Haley Joel Osment displays talent beyond his years as the tortured child forced to act as a decidedly reluctant supernatural conduit. The ghosts that inhabit this world, you see, aren't angry, chain-rattling specters. They're just dead people, and none too happy about it. The ghosts all want something of young Cole, but the kid's far too frightened to even listen. Too young to understand his gift and too afraid to tell anyone, Cole finds himself stewing in self-doubt and desperately clutching for some defense against the darkness.
Osment was apparently one of George Lucas' first choices to play Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace and, based on the evidence here, Lucas chose poorly. Osment is no puppy-eyed moppet; he displays a sizable understanding of his character's darker shadings -- a skill that might have lent some interest to Lucas' grinning kiddy characterization. In The Sixth Sense, Osment fights bravely against some dialogue that is a tad too prescient. (Hey, I realize he's got psychic powers, but he's still a kid.) Shyamalan seems to be of that canon of writers who believe every child on Earth has all the wisdom, patience and emotional depth of the young Dalai Lama.
Willis, meanwhile, wages his own battle against a character so dramatically perfect he could have wandered, unabridged, out of The Scriptwriter's Handbook. Willis' whole "wounded protagonist seeking redemption" seems ridiculously pat -- and yet, Shyamalan pulls the character off with a surprising denouement that slyly elevates everything before it. In the jetwash of his wise-cracking, tough-guy persona, it's easy to forget what a fine everyman actor Bruce Willis really is. Even his action film roles (Die Hard, for example) are based on an "ordinary guy in way over his head" idea. More often than not, it's the bluster of the film that overshadows Willis' easygoing persona (as in Armageddon). Here, Willis underplays perfectly.
Though it occasionally struggles with the kind of too clever, too self-important air that many sophomore writing/directing efforts face, The Sixth Sense winds up as a smart, creepy and disarmingly old-fashioned heart-pumper with enough creative twists and turns to keep most audiences on the edge of their seats (or the edge of someone else's seat, as the case may be).