Sixth Sense, The (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With his third feature effort, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has taken a huge step in the wrong direction. After showing great strides of maturity between his ineffective debut, Praying with Anger, and 1998's appealing Wide Awake, Shyamalan has backslided alarmingly with The Sixth Sense. While this picture shares many qualities with Wide Awake (a child protagonist, a central spiritual theme, and being set in Shyamalan's home city of Philadelphia), it's an inferior product. It is not well written, well acted, or well directed.

Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a revered psychologist who has just earned an award from the mayor for his efforts with children. On the night that Crowe and his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), are celebrating his triumph, they arrive home to find an intruder in their bathroom. He is Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg), one of Crowe's few failures. After rambling about Crowe's faults as a psychiatrist and asking "Do you know why you're afraid when you're alone?", he brandishes a gun, then shoots himself and his doctor.

Cut to "Next Fall." Crowe has recovered from his wounds physically but not emotionally. A gulf has developed between him and his wife. The once-loving couple hardly talks and he suspects that she's having an affair. As a means to assuage his guilt, Crowe begins to work with 9-year old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a boy who shows similar problems to those displayed by Vincent Gray at that age. Crowe is determined to accomplish for Cole what he could not do for his former patient. But the task he has set for himself is not an easy one. Cole sees and hears things that others cannot, and he is afraid to open up to his mother, Lynn (Toni Collette), for fear that she will think he's a freak.

Some interesting things happen during the final half-hour of The Sixth Sense, including a clever (albeit entirely predictable) twist at the very end. Unfortunately, to get to that point, it's necessary to endure 75 minutes of some of the most dull, turgidly paced film making this side of Meet Joe Black. This movie plods along, daring viewers to remain awake. I had to employ all of my usual tricks to keep from falling asleep. Alas, one critic at the screening wasn't as lucky; her snores could be heard throughout the theater.

This is not a strong or effectively executed screenplay. There's no sense of subtlety. The dialogue is stilted. The characters say and do things only because the plot makes certain demands of them. With the exception of Cole, no character has more dimensions than a sheet of paper. And there's a lack of internal consistency and logic; the movie doesn't even play by its own rules. Perhaps another draft (or a complete re-write) of the script would have attenuated the amplitude of the flaws. There are some interesting ideas in The Sixth Sense - especially the way in which Cole's acceptance of his abilities brings about an awakening - but the good things are deeply buried.

The Sixth Sense is obviously an attempt by Bruce Willis to broaden his range. The actor, best known for action roles in films like Die Hard, has effectively explored a few dramatic parts in the past (most notably in In Country), but this may be the first time he has consciously attempted to essay a low-key persona. It doesn't work. Only in the first scene does Willis exhibit any life; after that, he has a tendency to fade into the background. Part of the problem is undoubtedly that his character is badly written, but there's also a distinct lack of energy in the performance.

Willis' co-star is young Haley Joel Osment, a child thespian who has shown promise in films like Forrest Gump (as Forrest Jr.) and Bogus. Unfortunately, Osment's work here is merely adequate, emphasizing the need that child actors have for strong directors (a point that should be remembered when condemning Jake Lloyd's turn in The Phantom Menace). Osment is occasionally effective, but, based on his past work, I expected a more captivating performance. Shyamalan fails to cull the most he can from the young actor.

Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding) deserves recognition for doing something with an underwritten role. Nevertheless, Lynn's relationship with Cole, which could have been an emotional cornerstone of The Sixth Sense, feels muted. There's only one scene between these two that possesses any depth (and that happens near the end). Meanwhile, Olivia Williams (Rushmore) is criminally underused. It's a shame, because much of the film's impact depends on our understanding a few things about Anna, but she's not on screen enough for us to recognize her as anything more significant than a footnote to the main story.

There are undoubtedly those who will enjoy The Sixth Sense simply because of the spiritual angle, which tries to say something about the connection between this world and the next one. Today's society has an undeniable fascination with supernatural/pseudo-religious issues. (Is there any other way to explain the success of pabulum like TV's "Touched by an Angel"?) But, unlike in movies such as What Dreams May Come, this motion picture is saddled with a murky, unimaginative vision. At its best, it's merely competent; at its worst, it has a movie making-by-the-numbers feel. The Sixth Sense joins Arlington Road in proving that a forceful or clever conclusion is not enough to redeem an otherwise uneven and tepid production.

Sixth Sense, The (United States, 1999)

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Hollywood Pictures
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1999-08-06
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1