movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 1999 Spyglass Entertainment Group, LP. All rights reserved.)

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The Sixth Sense

Strictly in terms of plot, The Sixth Sense isn't that far away from territory mined by Tales From the Crypt and The Twilight Zone. It gives us a story about the walking dead, always a popular topic for Tales From the Crypt (that goes for both the recent HBO television series as well as the original EC comic book), and it provides a tremendous twist in its final minutes--a hallmark of The Twilight Zone. Strictly in terms of plot, The Sixth Sense isn't particularly innovative or surprising. In fact, aficionados of the horror genre will likely have little difficulty seeing the final twist as it approaches.

However, The Sixth Sense is anything but a run-of-the-mill horror movie. As directed by M. Night Shyamalan (who also directed Rosie O'Donnell and Denis Leary in Wide Awake, 1997), The Sixth Sense does something that very few horror movies before have dared to do: it actually allows some human warmth to suffuse the drama--without sacrificing the story's potential for horror. Most horror movies don't even attempt anything remotely resembling warmth. For example, the excellent but much-hyped The Blair Witch Project is, by design, about as warm as a freshly interred corpse.

Mr. Shyamalan has built a horror movie that isn't strictly about scaring the audience. It does indeed deliver several exceptionally chilling scenes, yet Shyamalan is also interested in telling the story of a horribly sad, deeply-disturbed little boy named Cole Sears (Haley Joel Osment). The movie's climax is built around Cole learning to deal with his fears.

A similar argument could be made for another recent movie, The Haunting, which can be interpreted as about the lead character, Eleanor, learning to take control of her own life. However, in The Haunting, elaborate special effects sequences completely overwhelm the human story. Thankfully, in The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan doesn't let special effects take control of the movie. He keeps the focus on the human element--the boy and his psychiatrist. Whereas The Haunting went for sensory overload with computer generated effects, The Sixth Sense connects its horror to things that we are familiar with--and that makes it all the more scary. One of the movie's most frightening moments comes when a shadowy figure simply moves across the upper hallway of a house. No one should be there. Now we know we aren't alone--and that's a horribly vulnerable feeling.

The Sixth Sense effectively attaches it ghostly visions to our fears about what happens after we die. It suggests that ghosts--the dead--are around us all the time. "Did you ever feel the prickly things on the back of your neck?" asks Cole. "That's them." Cole is part of a very small group of people who can actually see ghosts. He doesn't want to see them, but he can't get away from them. One of the few places he feels at ease is the local church. After frantically running down the street and pulling open the church's heavy wooden doors, he crouches between the pews and plays with his toy soldiers.

A psychiatrist named Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) tries to help Cole, but Cole is suspicious of the doctor. No one understands what he sees. No one understands what he endures every day. His schoolmates treat him like he's a freak. He tries to be strong for his mother (Toni Collette) and protect her from what he sees.

"I don't tell her things," he says.

"Why not?" asks Dr. Crowe.

"Because she doesn't look at me like everybody else and I don't want her to. I don't want her to know."

He's one of the saddest little boys to ever appear in a movie. He misses his father horribly. (His parents are divorced.) He wears his father's glasses--no lenses. "They hurt my eyes," he says. At school, he once drew a picture of a man attacking another man with a screwdriver, and the teachers then held meetings about Cole. Now, he draws about smiles and rainbows: "They don't have meetings about rainbows," he says sadly. He wants the visions to go away. "I don't want to be scared anymore," he says, but he can't control the visions.

Dr. Crowe tries to help Cole, but he has troubles of his own. He's so committed to helping his patient that little time is left for his wife (Olivia Williams). She had endured his obsession with work relatively well until an intruder in their home--a past patient of Dr. Crowe's--pulled out a gun and left him seriously wounded. But six months later, he is now more dedicated than ever before to helping his patients. He spends all of his time trying to understand Cole. He and his wife share nary a word.

At the beginning, Dr. Crowe describes what Cole is experiencing with words such as "visual hallucinations," "hysteria," and "schizophrenia." But eventually, he begins to wonder if Cole's visions might be more than symptoms of a medical condition.

While telling the story of Cole and Dr. Crowe, writer/director Shyamalan uses a palette of blues and greys. Color isn't completely absent, but most objects have been drained so that only hints of the original colors remain. He uses bright colors judiciously as punctuation, such as the bright red blanket that Cole hides beneath in his home. And Shyamalan uses music sparingly. He doesn't milk the horror with screeching violins or booming bass drums. He allows an unnerving, almost death-like quietness to settle over the scenes.

Instead of hyping the drama with camera or soundtrack histrionics, Shyamalan allows the story to unravel slowly and deliberately through the interplay between the characters. That puts much of the movie's weight upon the shoulders of the actors, and they are definitely up to the task. Haley Joel Osment delivers one of the best performances ever by a child in a major Hollywood movie. He's an unusually intense young boy who communicates Cole's confusion and pain through his subtlety tortured body language. At the same time, however, Cole must be the strongest character in the movie, so Osment also gives Cole a strong will and resolve. Toni Collette, who was so good in Muriel's Wedding and Velvet Goldmine, takes a completely different turn here as Cole's mom. She plays a working-class mother with fake fingernails and a chintzy wardrobe, but she never becomes a simple caricature. There is always an undercurrent of warmth and concern in her voice. Olivia Williams, who played the love interest in Rushmore, communicates Anna Crowe's deep pain with her large, expressive, despair-filled eyes. And Bruce Willis gives his best performance since Pulp Fiction. Don't expect to see him playing an action-hero here. As Dr. Crowe, Willis gives us a pain-filled character who obsessively attempts to help Cole as absolution for failing a past patient.

More so than about horror, this movie is about horrible mental pain and how we can learn to deal with it. The movie is drenched in pain. Everyone seems on the verge of tears; however, the boy at the heart of the drama must carry the burden of their pain as well as his own. His visions of the walking dead can be truly unsettling, but through the quiet, intense atmosphere created by director Shyamalan, we also know the movie is about much more than simply grabbing us and shouting "boo!" As a result, the movie might make you jump but then five seconds later it can be so poignant that your eyes might get a little misty. That's a very rare combination indeed.

Be sure to watch for M. Night Shyamalan's movies in the future. He is a major new talent.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]