"THE SIXTH SENSE" is a ghost story and a psychological thriller. But there's something finer to it than that.

Perhaps it's the deliberate pacing, the almost contemplative timbre to the whole thing. And the chilliness, the sheer coldness in the air! It uses stillness, implication and silence in ways that reminded me of "Seven."

Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan knows how to build atmosphere -- this is clear. And he does it painstakingly, brick by brick. By the end of the picture, a very powerful design becomes clear, with a twist that will put your head in a swirl. And launch some spirited discussion, I'd hope.

That final section -- in which everything is "explained" -- may not work for some people. Personally, I bought it hook, line and sinker because I was so connected to the drama by that point. That was thanks to subtle work from Bruce Willis, who plays a child psychologist, and a remarkable performance from Haley Joel Osment -- as the child he tries to help.

The story is this: Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Willis), who practices in Philadelphia, gets the challenge of his life when he becomes acquainted with Cole Sear.

The boy, who is 8, has a dark secret. But he's loath to give it away. Malcolm has to make himself available to the boy until he opens up. It's hard not to reveal a little of the movie here, I'm afraid: Cole claims to see ghosts. Just what kind of ghosts they are, and what they are seeking -- well, that's Malcolm's mission. And yours.

There's another problem. Cole does not want to talk about this supernatural phenomenon. And his mother (Toni Collete), despite her best intentions, seems unable to understand her son, let alone believe him.

The boy also has abrasions on his body. Could this be a case of child abuse? Malcolm has to pursue this last question with great care and precision. The only way to find out everything, he realizes, is to get the boy's trust. To become his greatest friend.

This is an entrancing film, which dabbles in profound character revelation and the paranormal -- something you don't often see in a movie. And the 11-year-old Osment evokes the boy's terror and awful predicament so memorably, you'll never forget him.

It's a great pleasure, too, to watch Willis playing a restrained role, without the usual torn T-shirt, smirky quips and battery of firearms. Heroism in this story takes an entirely different set of reflexes.

Ultimately, my greatest praise goes to Shyamalan, whose previous credits include his low-budget 1992 debut, "Praying With Anger" and the 1997 "Wide Awake." His direction is superb, and the writing wonderfully mystical. And just when you're feeling spooked, there's always a little room for passing humor. At one point, Cole explains to Malcolm that his teachers at school became aware that he was a special child when he drew a picture of a man being stabbed in the neck by a screwdriver. "Everyone got upset. They had a meeting," says the boy. "I don't draw like that anymore."

THE SIXTH SENSE (PG-13, 107 minutes) -- Contains disturbing material and garish wounds. Area theaters.