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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
The Sixth Sense (1999)
3 Stars

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg.
1999 – 113 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for profanity and intense situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 7, 1999; Updated September 2, 2013.

And the winner of the second-creepiest film of 1999 (after "The Blair Witch Project") goes to writer-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. A special type of gem that quietly, and gradually, sneaks up on a person, the film immediately absorbs the viewer into the story and characters while aspiring curiosity throughout as to where everything could possibly be leading. So much has been written about "The Sixth Sense" in the years since it was released that one would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't yet know the concluding twist. For those not in the know—or, for anyone who remembers seeing the movie in theaters, gloriously untainted—it is virtually impossible to figure out the ending before it comes. Out of left field only in regards to how unexpected it is, the narrative's key revelation is used not as a gimmick, but as a natural progression to what Shyamalan has been covertly setting up all along. In one ingeniously simple scene, every single plot hole is thoroughly patched up, and the film, with that vital turn of the switch, gracefully transitions from mere psychological thriller to something far more profound and ruminant than what one 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), are paid a visit by one of his past patients, culminating in Malcolm getting shot before the patient commits suicide, the film moves ahead to "The Next Fall." Malcolm has recovered from his injury, but his relationship with Anna has turned into a distant one, the two of them barely speaking to each other anymore. Dr. Crowe's current patient is 9-year-old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a quiet loner of a boy living with his hard-working single mother, Lynn (Toni Collette). Cole, expected to have a behavioral disorder, tells him right away that he seems like a nice doctor, but one that cannot help him. The boy is hiding a deep, dark, terrifying secret not known by anyone but himself, and, although the original trailers for the film foolishly gave it away, Shyamalan methodically holds on revealing it. Told at an intoxicatingly unhurried tempo, the film takes its time, inspired more by dramatic thrillers of the 1970s than the late-'90s.

The aforementioned "The Blair Witch Project," as with "The Sixth Sense," couldn't have come at a more opportune time back in the summer of 1999, both films physically showing the audience very little of the actual horrific goings-on, relying on the heavy power of suggestion rather than special-effects extravaganzas. Just look at Jan De Bont's piss-poor remake of "The Haunting," a $75-million haunted house pic also released around the same time which left nothing to the imagination and, coincidentally, did not have one thoroughly effective moment in its entire running time. The "less-is-more" theory of filmmaking has almost always bred a more fixed, lasting imprint, and it's a tradition that continues to hold true. 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 when material of this nature is in such controlled hands. Indeed, the film progressively draws the viewer into the proceedings as if he or she was reading an intriguing book. When a fleeting moment of visual horror is seen, it is all the more unexpected and emotionally stirring—and earned.

The critically important role of the solemn, put-upon Cole was, no doubt, a tricky part to cast because having a sickeningly precocious kid actor who mugs for the camera at every opportunity likely would have ruined the whole film. A then-11-year-old Haley Joel Osment is different, and thankfully so. Simply put, he is a real actor, one that, with every line of dialogue and memorable facial expression, is wholly believable and sympathetic without being overly cutesy. Incredibly assured but confident even as his character is anything but, Osment is perfect in relaying Cole's personal confusion and terror at the things he is able to see. At the time the film came out, it stood as the best youth performance since 3-year-old Victoire Thivisol in 1997's "Ponette."

Because Osment is so very good, top-billed 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. Despite being the best thing Willis had done professionally since 1994's "Pulp Fiction," there is something about Willis' face that keeps him from selling most of his characters. Seemingly always smirking as if he is in on a joke, the actor segues into "ultra-serious" mode, but does not fully sell some of his line readings. Willis is not bad in the film, but acting alongside the often-brilliant Osment—or, for that matter, the remarkably poignant and compassionate Toni Collette (1998's "Clockwatchers"), as Cole's frustrated but caring mother—does him no favors. Also of considerable interest is Olivia Williams (1998's "Rushmore"), portraying Willis' long-suffering wife, Anna. The part is underwritten and doesn't give her enough to do to equal what she is capable of, but intently watch Williams when she is onscreen to see how an actor can make so much out of so little; the subtle expressions on her face speak volumes over spoken words.

"The Sixth Sense" shines a bright spotlight on its two main characters, Cole and Dr. Malcolm, and the unlikely bond linking them in this world and the next. Amazing, too, how the ending has the sheer force to completely blindside when the final, ultimate twist occurs. "The Sixth Sense" is a genuine experience—genuinely scary, genuinely touching, and genuinely thought-provoking—one of those special films released within the confines of the Hollywood studio system that somehow squeezed through the cracks with its original ideas and trust in its audience firmly intact. A late scene between Cole and his mother may even bring some to tears, the emotions striking a truthful note that avoid any semblance of syrupy melodrama. The real kicker, then, is that "The Sixth Sense" isn't really a typical horror movie at all, but actually a contemplative, heart-baring look at the process of life.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman