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The Sixth Sense

M. Night Shyamalan

Kathleen Kennedy
Frank Marshall
Barry Mendel

Tak Fujimoto

James Newton Howard

Andrew Mondshein


Bruce Willis (Dr. Malcolm Crowe)
Toni Collette
(Lynn Sear)
Olivia Williams
(Anna Crowe)
Haley Joel Osment
(Cole Sear)
Donnie Wahlberg
(Vincent Grey)
Glenn Fitzgerald
Mischa Barton
(Kyra Collins)
M. Night Shyamalan
(Dr. Hill)

MPAA rating: PG-13
Running time: 107m
U.S. release: August 6, 1999
Video availability: VHS - DVD
Official website

Other M. Night Shyamalan films
reviewed on this website:

- Signs
- Unbreakable

Now here's the movie I wanted The Blair Witch Project to be. True, The Sixth Sense isn't in the class of horror heavyweights like Halloween; it's more of a respectable middleweight, and it packs a wallop when it decides to let fly. This may be a case of a movie betrayed by its own trailer: Spookily photographed and edited, the trailer nonetheless suggested Mercury Rising meets The Shining -- a little boy sees ghosts, and here's Bruce Willis to the rescue! -- and the little boy in question, one Haley Joel Osment, seemed stiff and stilted in his too-whispery delivery. This was going to be a turkey, no doubt about it.

Well, there's a lot to be said for going into a movie with low expectations. Aside from a couple of unnecessary scenes, The Sixth Sense is a low-key triumph of mood and menace; the most shocking thing about it is how hushed and intimate it is, how softly and quietly it goes about its business of creeping us out. The movie is all of a piece, which is probably why the scenes in the trailer, ripped out of context, feel a bit cheesy. In context, the quietly fear-stricken performance of 11-year-old Osment, as the haunted Cole Sear, works beautifully. It works even better after you've seen the film and put the pieces together -- about which, more later.

Cole is scared to death almost all the way through the movie, as well he should be: Dead people who don't know they're dead are visiting him, and he doesn't know what they want from him. Enter child psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe (Willis), who gently tries to prod the boy into revealing his secret. For a while, we're not sure whether Cole is actually seeing ghosts, or is just a lonely little boy acting out in the wake of his parents' divorce. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan gives us an early exchange between Cole and Malcolm that speaks volumes: Malcolm guesses that the watch Cole is wearing was given to him by his (absent) father, and Cole shakes his head and says solemnly, "He forgot it in his drawer. It doesn't work."

Malcolm is drawn to Cole because of an earlier incident -- a former child patient, now grown, who freaked out and became violent. Cole reminds Malcolm of that patient, and the doctor sees Cole as his chance for redemption. The heart of The Sixth Sense is in soft-spoken conversations between Malcolm and Cole, as well as between Cole and his frazzled but loving mom (the excellent Toni Collette). There is no cheesy subplot in which Malcolm and Cole's mom become romantically involved, even though Malcolm's own marriage seems to be in trouble; you know a guy's working too hard when the wife he's ignoring is Olivia Williams (Rushmore).

Shyamalan, working with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs), takes time on the mood and atmosphere -- the possibility of the uncanny in mundane settings. (There's also a hidden-video-camera bit more disturbing than anything in Blair Witch.) There are swipes here and there -- a Poltergeist nod, for example -- but the movie lays realistic groundwork for the supernatural events to come. And when they come, they are all the more unsettling for being rather matter-of-fact. The Sixth Sense also, as you may have heard by now, boasts a nice curveball ending; I liked it the other few times I've seen it before, but I didn't see it coming here. (Among other things, you realize why Cole whispers throughout the movie.) The best curveball the movie throws, though, is that it dares to be small-scale, quiet, and low-tech in a shrill era for horror.