The Sixth Sense (1999)

11 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Sixth Sense” is more of a psychological thriller than a traditional ghost story. It has its gruesome moments, its tense moments of terror, and even some ghosts, but they exist to serve the story and its characters. This is a call back to those original ghost stories that featured ordinary people in unbelievable situations they couldn’t quite understand. Probably one of the more notable aspects of the stories was that children were more attentive of the ghosts, while the adults are more skeptical. “The Sixth Sense” is about a little boy who claims he can “see dead people.” And he really does.

The story begins with a child psychologist named Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) who is celebrating with his wife Anna (Olivia Williams) after he receives an award for his work. But he encounters an intruder, who is actually a patient from many years ago, now completely cracked and believing that Malcolm failed him. The intruder shoots Malcolm before pulling the gun on himself.

Cut to the next fall, when Malcolm has somewhat recovered from the encounter. I use the term “somewhat” because he seems more dedicated to his work while his life at home with Anna seems to have no special meaning anymore. He works on a new case—a small, odd boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), who seems to have the same problems that Malcolm’s earlier patient did. He hopes to get it right this time as a form of redemption.

Cole reveals his deep secret to Malcolm, that he sees ghosts. They frighten him, never seem to go away, and are even capable of physical harm towards him. Malcolm doesn’t quite believe the kid’s stories and thinks he might be intensely disturbed. But Cole knows things that others shouldn’t know and Malcolm can’t deny the truth.

One of the great things about “The Sixth Sense” is that it eases us into the scary stuff. There’s always a great deal of tension underlying the story, from one scene to the next. It takes its time to develop the characters and the terror that most of them experience, and then delivers the payoffs. The result is chilling and quite fascinating in the way it continues straight with the story, instead of resorting to mindless violence and smoke-and-mirrors.

We don’t see the ghosts right away—it would have sucked away the film’s credibility. But we can feel that they’re there because of certain strange occurrences (for example, the mother leaves the kitchen for a few seconds and comes back to see every cupboard door mysteriously opened). When we finally do see them, they are as frightening as Cole makes them out to be and we feel his fear. But then the story asks a question you rarely hear in a ghost story—what do the ghosts want from him? Why do they make themselves visible to him? Ghosts are not just there to be seen by people who delight in seeing them. Ghosts don’t just appear to scare people. They want something they weren’t able to finish in the time they were alive, so they can rest in peace. Malcolm uses his attempt at understanding to convince Cole that the best way to be rid of them is to help them.

I haven’t mentioned the writer-director—I have to. It’s M. Night Shyamalan, who proves with this movie that he can write and direct the best sort of thrillers. He doesn’t care about simple gimmicks to keep the story going and get the audience invested. Instead, he uses rules, clues, and sensibility to cover those two important qualities. I also love the way he stays focused on characters in a single scene, just letting the scene play out. He lets the actors feel their characters and thus make the relationships between them feel natural—Malcolm and Cole, Malcolm and Anna, and Cole and his mother (Toni Collette).

The acting is first-rate. Bruce Willis, in my opinion, delivers his best work here. He’s been appealing in action movies, but in “The Sixth Sense,” he delivers some serious acting chops and is more than capable of delivering a dramatic role. He has a real quiet sensitivity and a true sense of trust that makes you believe in him. Haley Joel Osment is a very good young actor and a lot of the story rides on him. He fully succeeds in getting the motions of Cole exactly right. He’s odd, yes, but he’s scared, reactive, and believable. We feel for this kid and just hope that he doesn’t have to be scared anymore. Osment proves he can play heavy scenes with older, more experienced actors. Also, Toni Collette is great as Cole’s mother Lynn, in the way she reacts to her son’s behavior—her final scene with Cole is especially heartbreaking and wonderfully acted by both Collette and Osment. Of the rest of the supporting cast, both Olivia Williams as Anna and Donnie Wahlberg as Malcolm’s former patient Vincent deliver solid work.

There’s a twist ending at the end of the movie, which I would not dare give away, even if you already know it from other people who saw this movie and blabbed about it. For those who don’t know the twist, it will most likely surprise you as it did me. What’s great about it is not that you didn’t see it coming, but that there were a lot of hidden clues throughout what was leading up to it that you can understand the second or third time you watch it. This is a movie that has you thinking, asking questions, talking about it—I love that kind of movie.

Actually, now that I think about it, the more I watched this movie, the more unnerved I become because I know what is going to happen. I especially get nervous when I think about the connection between Cole and Vincent. I understand the full meaning of Vincent when he delivered his final words in a shouting, panicked manner, and worry about what would happen if Malcolm failed Cole—would Cole have ended up like Vincent? And without giving too much away, there’s an element of coldness throughout the story. Whenever someone says it’s getting cold, I let my guard up, even when I know what’s happening.

“The Sixth Sense” is a masterful thriller—great screenplay, credible performances, skillful direction, involving story, and some truly scary moments that amount to something. There’s hardly a moment where it steers wrong and it serves as one of the very best thrillers I’ve ever seen.

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