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'The Sixth Sense': Shocker Therapy

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 1999

  Movie Critic

'Sixth Sense'
In "The Sixth Sense," Bruce Willis tries to uncover Haley Joel Osment's dark secret. (Hollywood)

M. Night Shyamalan
Bruce Willis;
Haley Joel Osment;
Olivia Williams;
Toni Collette;
Donnie Wahlberg
Running Time:
1 hour, 47 minutes
Scenes of corpses and hangings
Some movies do the twist. They stand or fall on their endings. They have no content except the last big reversal. They twist the night away.

So when I say that the ending of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" knocked me out of both socks, and I loved that pure moment of revelation, you must bear in mind that – hard as it is to recall now – for the first hour and a half it depressed me.

It's dreary, morose, surly, sullen, dingy. Worse, it's set in Philadelphia. Even worse, it stars, in his sensitive mode, Bruce Willis.

He's a fellow who looks good with the old Beretta clutched in a paw, and a grizzle of three-day beard, and a sneer. You got guerrillas in the mist? Call Bruce, the Orkin Man of international terrorism. He still kills the old way, with gun and fist, and he looks damn good doing it, particularly in a pre-Gable undershirt with those little white straps, the kind that makes the biceps look all bulgy.

But here he's a child psychiatrist – Dr. Malcolm Crowe – with a soft demeanor and a body swaddled in shapeless, dowdy Ivy League clothes. His eyes bleed compassion, his tentative body language announces to the world that he's unsure he belongs. His voice is a mutter hidden inside a whisper. He's marginal.

A tragedy (embittered ex-patient with a gun) that cut him down and crippled him on the best day of his life seems to be the culprit. Now recovered physically, he's not at all recovered mentally. He just doesn't have it together. His wife (Olivia Williams) doesn't listen to him, she may be seeing another man, his thriving practice has shrunk to a single patient, whose therapy is the issue of the movie.

This child, Cole Sear (brilliantly played by Haley Joel Osment), is strangely fearful. Picked on in school, unassertive at home, weirdly weird, he is a travail to his single mother (Aussie Toni Collette) and worrisome to school authorities. Slowly and using his best wiles for empathy, Willis's Dr. Crowe reaches out to make contact. We seem, for a while, to be in a reinvention of a lost '60s genre, the heroic-therapist movie, the masterpiece of which was "David and Lisa." This movie exhibits the same earnest faith in the power of psychiatry to penetrate, understand and heal; it should be called "Malcolm and Cole."

Yet the problem, when at last revealed, seems beyond healing. The boy claims that he sees the dead. They are everywhere, and now and then the camera floats over to his point of view, to show us burn victims from the 1930s or the Colonial serfs dangling at the end of a rope for stealing bread crumbs. But it is testament to Dr. Crowe's humanity that he doesn't just download a Prozac Rx on the boy and go play golf. No: He finds that he believes and that there must be a reason and that in that reason there is a kind of salvation and mercy. That becomes the thrust of the film: What use can this boy be to the ghosts, and what are they to him?

The movie is full of odd touches. The oddest is Collette as the mother; she seems strangely synthetic, unaffiliated with a class or a profession, unrooted in society, like some kind of robot. Her job is never seen, her life is left blank. Is she the source of the emanations of strangeness? And what happened to Daddy? This is never filled in. Is she from a different planet?

Meanwhile, the more the doc struggles to understand and then help the boy, the more his own life unravels. He is feckless, haunted himself. So the film eventually abandons the heroic-therapist model and ventures toward other ground, ever so gently tightening its squeeze. It seems really to achieve something that Stanley Kubrick was possibly groping after in "Eyes Wide Shut," or that Nicolas Roeg achieved in "Don't Look Now," which might be called an extreme sense of the bizarre, not as invented by special-effects wizards with unlimited space on the hard drive but in the subtler ways of film craftsmanship. In fact, along with "The Blair Witch Project," this modestly budgeted but shivery, quivery meditation on the omnipresence of death makes an overblown piece of junk like "The Haunting" seem even more worthless and wasteful than it is.

The movie is a maximum creep-out. It's invasive. It's like an enema to the soul as it probes the ways of death – some especially grotesque in a family setting. You leave slightly asquirm. You know it will linger. It becomes a clammy, chilly movie building toward a revelation that you cannot predict.

As I say: I cannot tell you. You'd hate me if I did. I can only say, don't look now, but look sometime.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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