The Austin Chronicle

The Sixth Sense

Rated PG-13, 107 min. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Olivia Williams, Toni Collette, Donnie Wahlberg.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 13, 1999

It's all too easy to pigeonhole Bruce Willis into one of the many cookie-cutter action roles in which he made his name, but that precludes the fact that muscles or no muscles, this is a male Hollywood star who can act up a storm (and one who first came to prominence doing a darn good job of just that way back in his Moonlighting salad days). For every Die Hard on Willis' résumé, there's also a 12 Monkeys, a cerebral yin to the more explosive yang, and The Sixth Sense has the pleasant feel of Willis once again stretching his acting chops and taking a powder from the more traditional slam-bang shoot-'em-ups. Of course, it's not all that pleasant, seeing as how the film deals with the restless spirits of the dead, and, on a broader emotional plane, human loss.

This is evinced in the film's opening scenes, in which Willis' child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe is celebrating his mayoral commendation with his wife Anna (Williams, late of Rushmore). Fresh off a couple bottles of Merlot, they slip upstairs to the bedroom of their Philadelphia brownstone and commence a languidly goofy precoital striptease when they're interrupted by an intruder bearing grudges. Looking like a ghost himself, this strange man, a former child patient of Crowe's (played by an unlikely Wahlberg), accuses the doctor of having failed him when he needed him most. Pulling out a revolver, he shoots Crowe. Then he shoots himself. Here the film cuts to the next fall, and introduces Crowe's newest patient: 11-year-old newcomer Osment plays eight-year-old Cole Sear, a boy with the pained expression of a car-crash survivor. Cautious, wise, and frightened, Cole takes the better part of the first half of the film to come around to his new doctor, and when he finally reveals his terrible secret, it's far less a surprise to us than it is to the emotionally wounded Crowe. Cole, of course, sees the restless phantasms of dead people wandering around, looking banged-up, forlorn, and wondering what the hell happened to them.

No wonder the kid needs a therapist, and Willis, convinced that he can assuage his guilt over that past, crucial failure, abandons all else in his righteous mission to help this new boy. Toward that end, he allows his marriage to fall apart (he keeps spotting a handsome young stranger approaching his wife), while Cole and his frustrated, loving single mother Lynn (Collette) struggle to maintain some semblance of normalcy. The Sixth Sense is, above all, a ghost story (in a summer movie season seemingly filled with them), but it remains a cut above by virtue of Shyamalan's quiet, stately direction and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto's brilliantly evocative visuals, which turn modern-day Philadelphia into a bleak, funereal wasteland. There's also a powerful, hackle-raising twist that Shyamalan tosses out at film's end that will have viewers re-evaluating everything that has come before, but at the heart of it, The Sixth Sense works best when it works its mournful magic alone, without fanfare, using only the flickering fear in Cole's gaze as it meets the compassion in Crowe's.

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