THE AISLE SEAT - "THE SIXTH SENSE"
by Mike McGranaghan
The Sixth Sense is an extraordinarily well-told ghost story. When I walked in, I was unsure of what to expect. Two hours later, I sat in my seat awed by what I had just seen. What makes it special is the sheer subtlety of the storytelling. It's the kind of movie that slowly gets under your skin, never telling you everything you want to know. Then - in the last two minutes - all the elements fall into place. When the end credits started to roll, I was officially blown away by the power and cleverness of the movie.
Bruce Willis (giving one of his best performances) plays Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychiatrist troubled over a confrontation he had with a former client whom he was not able to help. Despite having won a prestigious award, he feels incapable. Crowe finds possible salvation in the form of Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a young child with symptoms similar to that of the former client. Cole draws disturbing pictures and free-writes in a violent stream-of-consciousness style. It is eventually revealed that Cole can see dead people walking around in a kind of limbo between life and afterlife. Crowe tries to help the boy and his mother (Toni Collette), who is deeply troubled by her son's behaviors.
I have intentionally left out quite a few important elements of the plot, so as to maintain some of the story's mystery. Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has carefully crafted a screenplay that allows you to connect the dots only at the very end. Everything that happens in the film is deliberately conceived to support the central idea. I was never quite sure what was real and what wasn't: Is Cole really seeing ghosts or is he mentally disturbed?
I really liked the way Shyamalan evokes a quietly eerie mood. Like the psychiatrist, you slowly get little clues about what's going on in Cole's mind. For instance, when a couple of pranking kids lock Cole in a dumbwaiter and he freaks out, you wonder what exactly is frightening him so bad. The movie has many such scenes scattered throughout, raising the level of curiosity to greater and greater heights. Perhaps the best thing I can say about The Sixth Sense is that it never bores; I sat in constant anticipation of the next little morsel of knowledge it would give me about the characters.
It's also worth noting that the film feels very real. The psychological aspects of the story (and Crowe's treatment of Cole) are authentic. Some ghost stories are too far out to be believable (The Haunting is a prime example). The Sixth Sense, meanwhile, is so low-key and detail-oriented that you believe this could really happen. The verisimilitude is a crucial part of why it has such an ominous impact (you occasionally see the dead people Cole speaks of, but even that is handled in such an understated manner that you focus on their function to the story rather than on the scare factor).
Performance-wise, the movie is also top-notch. Willis totally drops his trademark smirky acting style to give a sincere performance. The last time he played a shrink on-screen was in the 1994 turkey Color of Night (which I picked as the worst film of that year). It seemed preposterous to cast the actor as a psychiatrist in that picture, but in this one it feels just right. The real stunner, though, is Haley Joel Osment, a child actor who has previously played annoying too-cutesy kids in movies like Bogus and on TV's short-lived "Jeff Foxworthy Show." With The Sixth Sense, Osment shows a surprising range; Cole is a well-developed character and Osment brings his haunted side fully to light. It's a marvelous performance from a gifted young actor.
I was totally sucked in by The Sixth Sense, from its very first frame to the last second of its surprise ending. Too many movies these days want to beat the audience over the head, to spell every single detail out. This one relishes its sense of mystery and uses that to get the audience emerged. I was entertained, which is enough to allow me to recommend the movie, but the real selling point is that when the answers are finally revealed, I was left dazzled. The Sixth Sense is a work of real imagination, an intelligent and emotional thriller with a conclusion that will linger in my mind for weeks.
( 1/2 out of four)