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The Sixth Sense
A nice change of pace for Bruce Willis, and a nice creep-out for us
The Sixth Sense trailer was unsettling enough. A concerned Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) asks the young Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) what it is that disturbs him so. "I see dead people," whispers Cole, staring at Crowe with plaintive desperation. Brow furrowing, Crowe asks: "How often do you see them?" The answer is even more hushed, with the sad eyes of a child who's seen too much: "All the time... they're everywhere." Cut to Cole backed against a wall, a little girl with sunken eyes peering out from under a bed.

Brrr. The trailer didn't reveal much else, save that those inexplicable chills you sometimes feel are usually because the spirits of the dead are lounging nearby. Creepy, and a little enigmatic.

Particularly perplexing was the presence of Mr. Die Hard. Not once in the trailer did he grit his teeth manfully, nor did he shoot anyone, nor did anything explode. It almost seems impossibleľa Bruce Willis flick without violence or, for that matter, smartass patter? What kind of movie is this?

As it happens, a pretty good one. The Sixth Sense is scary--one of the few movies to ever give me nightmares--not in an axe-murdering, scary-monster kind of way, but in that quietly unsettling way that gets under your skin and worms around for a while.

The Sixth Sense
Hollywood Pictures
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
USA, 1999

Of course, Cole really is seeing dead people, and they are everywhere. No one else knows this, so most folks just regard him as a little odd. His classmates abuse him in that way only kids can, and his mother, who raises him alone, agonizes over what demons could possibly haunt an eight-year-old.

Enter child psychologist Crowe. A year before meeting Cole, his greatest triumph collided with his greatest tragedy: the night he and his wife celebrated an award, an old patient broke into the Crowe home, all grown up and carrying a gun, distraught because Crowe hadn't been able to help him as a tot. Crowe took a bullet; the poor man shot himself.

Cole and the patient's documented cases are nearly identical, so Crowe seizes the chance for redemption. He's also trying to repair the tatters of his marriage; since the shooting, communication with his wife has totally broken down.

And so we have our two principals, both needing to be healed. But where's the horror?

Oh, right, Cole answered that: everywhere. He sees and hears things with frightening regularity, but the worst happen at night, echoing the very things children--and, admit it, adults--fear. At one point, like any normal kid, he sprints for the bathroom in the middle of the night, urged on equally by a full bladder and fear of the unknown. While he's relieving himself, a rustle sounds behind him. It's something we've all experienced; the hair rises on the backs of our necks, and we turn slowly, half-expecting the bogeyman. Cole, of course, has real bogeymen, and the mundanity of the event makes it all the more terrifying for us.

But more than anything else, what disturbs is the awful realization that anywhere you go, possibly including your home, someone has met a bad end, leaving things unfinished and unsaid. One scene has Cole's teacher telling him their school was originally a courthouse; Cole insists that it was a place where people where hanged. The teacher, of course, denies this, but Cole knows the truth: even a place of learning can be tainted by horrible, violent death. As if to underscore this, The Sixth Sense feels dark and overcast, a quiet morbidity hanging over even the most innocent scenes.

Osment wears the part of Cole well. His eyes carry a haunted look, the look of a child who has seen too much, knows too much, and more than anything else wants someone to understand. We can see how it tears him apart to lie to his mother, trying to spare her the thought that her only child is insane.

And, too, Bruce Willis is surprisingly believable. Aside from one scene which is a little too misty-eyed, he pulls off being Mr. Sensitive fairly well, juggling his commitment to Cole and his need to patch things up with his wife.

It looks like this could be a nice change of direction for Willis, and The Sixth Sense is a nice change in direction for movies. Most horror films these days rely on shock, sex, and monsters sticky with goo to keep the audience's attention. Here, it's more understated: everyone carries their around own private horror, and the disquiet is palpable even when dead people aren't stumbling around, unaware that they've passed on. At a time when many Hollywood summer movies (including Willis's own Armageddon and Fifth Element) try to be louder and busier than the competition, The Sixth Sense succeeds by being quieter and more subtle. So much so, that when the ending sneaks up on you, it'll leave you reviewing the movie in your head for days after.

A thought-provoking Hollywood summer movie? Now that's scary.

A Critical Eye exclusive (July 31, 1999)
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