The Sixth Sense (1999)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg.
1999 113 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and intense situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 7, 1999.
And the winner of the second creepiest film of the year (after "The Blair Witch Project") goes to director M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense." To say that the picture is merely "creepy," however, is not giving it nearly as much credit as it deserves, as it is that special type of gem that quietly, and gradually, sneaks up on you so that you are immediately absorbed into the story and characters, but still question throughout where everything could possibly be leading. Predict all you want, but it is virtually impossible to figure out the ending before it comes, and even though it's right out of left field, I hasten to say that it is not used as a gimmick, sort of like 1995's "The Usual Suspects." No, the conclusion to "The Sixth Sense" is very different, for in one ingeniously simple scene every single plot hole is thoroughly patched up, and the film, with that vital turn of the switch, gracefully moves right out of being merely a 'psychological thriller,' and becomes something far more profound and ruminant that anyone could possibly have anticipated when the opening credits began 113 minutes earlier.
After a stirring prologue in which psychiatrist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), get paid a visit by one of his past patients which ends with Malcolm getting shot and the patient committing suicide, the film switches to "The Next Fall," as Malcolm has recovered from his injury but whose relationship with Anna has turned into a distant one in which they don't even speak to each other anymore. Dr. Malcolm's current patient is 9-year-old Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a quiet loner of a boy living with his hard-working single mother (Toni Collette), who is expected to have a behavioral disorder. Cole tells him right away that he seems like a nice doctor, but one that can't help him, for this deep, dark, and terrifying secret that he is hiding is not known by anyone but himself. So what is the secret? Although this revelation is discovered midway through, the trailers for the film foolishly give it away, but in respect for those that have been fortunate enough not to see them, I will not reveal it. As for those who have seen the ads, well, you already know the "secret" and therefore, I don't have to give it away for you, either.
The recent releases of "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Sixth Sense" couldn't have come at a more opportune time, because both films visually show very little of the actual horrific things terrifying the characters, which does nothing but add a deep intelligence and eerie effectiveness that probably would have been lost in a special-effects extravaganza. Just look at Jan De Bont's piss-poor remake of "The Haunting," a $75-million film which left nothing to the imagination and, coincidentally, did not have one frightening moment in the whole movie. The "less-is-more" theory appears to be becoming a tradition recently, and it's a tradition I'd like to see continue if these two marvelous films are any indication. Shyamalan is wisely very discreet in his storytelling approach to "The Sixth Sense," and the film never rushes along to the next scene for the insulting reason of keeping the audience awake. If every scene isn't action-packed, that is perfectly fine, as the movie progressively draws you into the proceedings as if you were reading an intriguing book, so that when a fleeting moment of visual horror is seen, it is all the more unexpected and emotionally stirring.
The highly important role of the child was, no doubt, a tricky part to cast because having a sickeningly precocious kid actor who mugs for the camera at every opportunity possible would have ruined the whole film. 11-year-old Haley Joel Osment (1996's "Bogus") is different, and thankfully so. Simply put, Osment is a real actor, one that, with every line of dialogue and memorable facial expression, is wholly believable and sympathetic without being overly 'cute.' Incredible and unassured, Osment is perfect in relaying his character of Cole's personal confusion and terror at the things he is able to see. It is the best performance from a child I've seen since 3-year-old Victoire Thivisol in 1997's "Ponette."
Because Osment is so very good, the "star" and veteran of the cast, Bruce Willis, is unable to hold his own ground as firmly as if a more accomplished actor had been playing this same role. Willis has to be given a round of applause for choosing this one-of-a-kind film project, which is far better than anything else he has been in since 1994's "Pulp Fiction," but there is something about Willis' face that keeps him from selling most of his characters. Seemingly always smirking as if he is in on the "joke," kind of like Adam Sandler, Willis recites some of the dialogue in his "ultra-serious" mode, which usually causes him to not fully sell his lines. Still, Willis is not, I repeat not, bad in the film, and this somewhat negative reaction probably stems more from the brilliance of Osment than from Willis' own acting talents.
Right next to Osment on the performance scale is Toni Collette (1995's "Muriel's Wedding," 1998's "Clockwatchers"), a prodigious, versatile actress who is remarkably poignant and compassionate as Cole's frustrated, caring mother. Also of interest is Olivia Williams (1998's "Rushmore"), as Willis' long-suffering wife. The role is underwritten and doesn't give her enough to do to equal what she is capable of, but intently watch Williams when she is on-screen and you will see that the subtle expressions on her face speak volumes over spoken words.
When it all comes down to it, "The Sixth Sense" is a film that shines the spotlight brightly on the two main characters, Cole and Dr. Malcolm, and that is the rightful centerpiece in which everything else revolves around. Amazing, too, how the ending has the sheer power to completely blindside you when the final, ultimate twist occurs. This whole review, I know, has been fairly vague in description, but that is how it should be. "The Sixth Sense" is a genuine experience--genuinely scary, genuinely touching, and genuinely thought-provoking--so much so that it is one of those special films released in the confines of Hollywood that somehow squeezed through the cracks to present an audience with several truly original ideas. Surprisingly, a late scene between Cole and his mother may even bring you to tears (it came very close for me), the emotions of which come refreshingly from the honesty of the situation, rather than from syrupy melodrama. And the real kicker of it all is, it turns out "The Sixth Sense" isn't really a typical horror movie at all, but actually a contemplative, thoughtful look at the process of life.
©1999 by Dustin Putman