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The Sixth Sense

Review by Carrie Gorringe
Posted 30 July 1999

The Sixth Sense   Written and Directed by M. Night Shymalan

Starring Bruce Willis,
Toni Collette, Olivia Williams,
Trevor Morgan, Donnie Wahlberg
and Haley Joel Osment

"I see dead people, " says eight-year-old Cole Sear (Osment) to his therapist, the renowned child psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Willis). And he really does – in fact, he’s the only one who can see them. His mother (Collette) certainly can’t explain why a cherished necklace given to her by her late mother ends up in one of Cole’s dresser drawers on a regular basis, unless he’s given to bouts of theft. He’s an outcast at school, among both students and staff, despite his obvious intelligence; he has to pay someone to walk with him to school so that his mother will believe otherwise.

The Sixth SenseAnd yet Cole, for all of his internal torments and exterior tormentors, has not been searching for assistance. It is Dr. Crowe who has decided to seek out Cole, not only because he believes he can help him, but also because the good doctor needs to believe that he can. Less than a year earlier, Dr. Crowe, flush with praise from an awards ceremony, confronted an armed intruder in his home. The intruder turned out to be none other than one of his former patients, Vincent Gray (a completely unrecognizable Donnie Wahlberg) who had fallen through the doctor’s busy schedule, and fallen apart as a result. The doctor was the recipient of the distraught young man’s wrath and retribution. Struggling with the nagging impression that he just might be a fraud, Crowe is desperate to help Cole. If only the boy would quit making up stories about seeing dead people and just accept the doctor’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia like a good patient, everything would work out just swimmingly. Of course, circumstances are inalterable unless Crowe can be brought around to an understanding of Cole’s unwanted gifts of perception, because Cole needs the doctor’s help to fulfill the mission for which he has unknowingly and unwittingly been selected.

On the face of it, director/screenwriter Shymalan’s recent film (following his feature debut, Wide Awake) appears to be a refreshing 180-degree shift away from the usual mystery/horror offerings of mayhem and gore, and that would be a fair assessment of it. Or, rather, I should say that that’s the impression you get in retrospect. While you’re actually in the theatrical grip of The Sixth Sense, the feelings experienced therein are far less ambiguous. The film isn’t necessarily too terrifying, but while Shymalan is toying with your expectations like a confidence trickster, not willing to give the game away until the last few frames, a sense of frustration tends to set in, as you get only what the director is willing to give you at the time. It’s a cinematic strip-tease, and one that, at times, seems almost too clever by half for its own good. Only after the payoff, and after your mind races over the cinematic landscape just exposed to your purview, searching in vain for continuity errors, do you sense how very deftly Shymalan’s deception has played on your expectations. To sustain this parlor trick over one sequence is admirable; to maintain it for 106 minutes is quite incredible – by contemporary standards. The director is asking his audience not only to meet him half way, but to do its share of the work, and there will be some who are not willing to do so.

A shame, really, because The Sixth Sense gives back considerably more than what it takes, but it does so in one post-filmic swoop rather than by degrees. It’s a story about more than a boy who sees dead people; it speaks to the fundamental fear in all of us: that we might die, our last wishes unknown to those still alive, with no one knowing what really happened, with no comfort, and with injustices against us left unpunished (this is, of course, why, aside from the randomness and violence associated with serial murder, its practitioners have been anointed the newest bogeymen for this fin-de-siecle society). Under the circumstances, Shymalan has turned contemporary Philadelphia and this quasi-surrealistic tale of phantoms into a metaphor for the deepest human despair, with none of the pretentious portent that a less skillful filmmaker might have drawn upon to prematurely engender suspense in the audience. Replete with confidence, the director lets the film speak for itself, since its voice is resounding.

The Sixth SenseNow, if someone had just gotten to Bruce Willis during the opening sequence when he has to create the role of loving, if neglectful, husband to the lovely Anna (Williams), the entire package would have been perfect. Willis’s scenes with young Osment (a young actor whose every gesture implies a deep well of precocious maturity) are replete with empathy and compassion, while his attempts at marital interplay are less than persuasive because they seem half-hearted in comparison. It’s immediately tempting to blame Willis’ real-life breakup with wife Demi Moore as the source of his awkwardness, but the problem goes back to Willis’ unwillingness to abandon the usual flippant shuck-and-jive routine that is his substitute for emoting, and that’s due to the fact that it’s typically the only thing he’s ever asked to do in what passes for tender moments in his action-film repertoire. Usually, Willis can get away with this minimalist (negativist?) approach to acting, but not here. There’s a good actor somewhere underneath those smirks, but it will take an archeologist to find him.

The Sixth Sense is a bonbon of a mystery film for narrative connoisseurs to savor, with many deeper issues wrapped inside. They should, however, be prepared to receive their pleasures after the fact, and to earn them through the exercising of considerable patience. Their efforts will be rewarded.

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