The Sixth Sense

Now I know how Goldilocks felt. Finding a good suspense thriller this summer has been the equivalent of finding a bed that is just right. “The Haunting” was too big and overblown. “The Blair Witch Project” was basically a non-event, despite all of the hype.


Now comes “The Sixth Sense,” a film that is both creepy and chilling. The supernatural thriller starring Bruce Willis arrived with little fanfare, but is so genuinely effective that it makes “The Haunting” and “The Blair Witch Project” look like a amateur night at the local drive-in. Smartly written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, “The Sixth Sense” is a first-rate thriller that slowly creeps up on you until you have no choice but to surrender to it.

Shyamalan has done his homework. “The Sixth Sense” reminded me of the best of Alfred Hitchcock, a moody, calculated character study with engaging characters, intelligent dialogue and an ending that will leave you breathless.

As the film begins, noted Philadelphia child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and his wife Anna (Olivia Williams) are celebrating in the comfort of their comfortable yet posh home. Malcolm has just been presented with a plaque by the mayor for his dedication and service, but the celebration is short lived when an intruder finds his way into their home.

He’s Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg, totally unrecognizable), a former patient that Malcolm failed to help. Nothing more than a frightened shell of a man, Gray accuses Malcolm of failing him, and in an act of exorcism, shoots Malcolm and then turns the gun on himself.

Jump to the following Fall, where Malcolm is now attempting to help Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a young boy afflicted with the same fears and nightmares as Gray. Malcolm desperately needs to help Cole in order to redeem himself, but isn’t sure if he’s up to the task.

Since the shooting his home life has fallen apart, and Malcolm expresses doubts about his ability to cure anyone. Still, he forges a friendship with Cole, and promises to help him through his psychosis.

Malcolm suspects Cole is suffering from anxiety and depression brought on by the divorce of his parents, which might explain Cole’s disturbed behavior at home and in school. Cole is slow to open up to Malcolm, afraid that once Malcolm learns of his real disorder, he will retreat.

Cole has a secret, one that is keeping him awake at night and turning his hair white. He sees dead people, and not in graveyards or coffins. He sees them all around him, walking on the streets and hanging out in his home and school. At first no one believes Cole, including his patient mother Lynn (Toni Collette), who thinks her young son is the one who keeps opening all of the kitchen cabinets and hiding a precious heirloom that belonged to her grandmother.

Lynn has no idea that Cole has a special connection to the other side, but all that is about to change. What I really appreciated about “The Sixth Sense” was the writer-director’s ability to establish character and motivation. Shyamalan slowly pieces the puzzle together without losing the audience or boring them.

He understands the mechanics of a good thriller, and manages to mount suspense that slowly builds until it is almost unbearable. His dialogue is especially effective, a deft combination of medical terminology and emotional ballast. The characters never say or do dumb things, a rarity in films of this type. There is also a clever twist that demands a second viewing in order to map out the writer’s logic.

Horror, like comedy, is subjective. While “The Blair Witch Project” perplexed me, I found the events in “The Sixth Sense” absolutely chilling. Fear through the eyes of a child has much more resonance than three hysterical adults who should know better running through a dark forest.

Children see things differently. Their emotions and reactions are raw, uncensored. That conviction is perfectly related by young Haley Joel Osment, who delivers a performance far beyond his years. I’ve always been a fan of Osment, but his performance here is remarkable. He shows a depth and understanding that is uncommon for a child actor. He doesn’t just deliver his lines, he delivers them with the necessary conviction to make all of this believable.

There is a moment when Cole is hiding out in a make-shift tent in his bedroom when he is visited by one of the spirits, and Osment’s delivery is so potent you can smell his fear.

Bruce Willis has been down this road before (He was a reluctant paternal figure in “Mercury Rising”), yet his performance here is so haunting it seems fresh. Willis displays an intensity normally reserved for his action films. The dialogue exchanges between Willis and Osment are honest and natural, and some of the best I have witnessed this year.

Toni Collette of “Muriel’s Wedding” is simply stunning as Lynn, a working class mother who will do anything to keep her child safe from harm. Instead of being regulated to the background as the cliched horrified mother, Collette finds strength in her son’s situation. She’s the kind of character we see too little of on the screen today.

The lovely Olivia Williams (“Rushmore”) has some fine moments as Malcolm’s bored wife, while Wahlberg is absolutely terrifying as the crazed patient who sends Malcolm on his journey of self discovery.

The entire film benefits from Shyamalan’s calculated direction. Nothing in the director’s past (including his delightful “Wide Awake”) suggested that he was capable of creating a supernatural thriller of this caliber. Even more amazing is the fact that the writer-director was capable of pulling all of this off within the confines of a PG-13 rating.

Shyamalan doesn’t go for the cheap thrill. He has something more unnerving in mind, and sets into motion a film that fulfills on that promise. Forget “Blair Witch” and “The Haunting.” For an honest scare, this is the only film that makes “Sense.”

A GHOST STORY THAT MAKES “SENSE”

THE SIXTH SENSE

Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Olivia Williams, Toni Collette, Donnie Wahlberg in a film directed by M. Night Shyamalan. 106 Minutes. Rated PG-13.

LARSEN RATING: $8



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