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(US 1999) Rated PG-13

*** 1/2 Stars

Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Olivia Williams, Toni Collette

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Writing credits: M. Night Shyamalan

Buena Vista * 110 minutes

In reviewing THE SIXTH SENSE a month after its opening, I feel a bit like those people who waited to see TITANIC till its video release; as if I have stepped into a phenomenon just a bit too late. Yet THE SIXTH SENSE, which seems to have pundits scratching their heads as to the reason for its success, it perhaps the closest thing we've seen to a perfect psychological thriller we've seen in years, certainly leaving pretentious garbage like EYES WIDE SHUT in the dust.

Like this summer's TWIN FALLS IDAHO, THE SIXTH SENSE is one of those languid, talky pictures that slowly and inexorably pulls the unwitting viewer into the mysteries of its plot and characters. No one speaks in a tone much above a whisper, nothing much happens, and yet what is revealed is far more fascinating than any effects-driven popcorn flick can possibly produce.

ssphoto2.jpg - 16007 BytesBruce Willis is Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist haunted by memories involving a young patient (ex-New Kid on the Block and Mark's brother Donnie Wahlberg) he was unable to help years ago. In an effort to redeem himself from his failure, he takes on as a patient young Cole Sear, an eight-year-old who himself is haunted by a terrible secret -- he can see ghosts. Dead people with unresolved problems here among the living appear before him constantly. As a result, he spends much of his young life in a state of terror that is baffling to not only himself, but also to his mother, his teachers, and his peers. Cole knows that no one else would believe him if he revealed what he sees, but he discovers that Dr. Crowe does.

ssphoto1.jpg - 10040 BytesTHE SIXTH SENSE works perfectly on so many levels, it's no wonder it has become the film phenomenon of the summer (BLAIR WITCH PROJECT hype notwithstanding). Cole's misfit status as the result of his "gift" -- a gift of dubious benefit -- resonates with anyone (and that includes most of us), who ever felt "different." Haley Joel Osment (best known as Forrest Junior in 1994's FORREST GUMP and as Avery in the final death-throes of MURPHY BROWN) as Cole, gives an astonishingly poised, natural, yet subtle performance, with not a trace of kid-actor self-consciousness. sense3.jpg - 12470 BytesRather than being just another pretty child actor, Osment has one of those fascinating, ageless faces that reflect a wisdom beyond his years. Although childhood fears have been mined to death in film, this troubled boy, while at times reminiscent of Danny Lloyd's Danny Torrance in Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING, seems less terrified than saddened by what he sees. And even if you've seen the trailer over and over again, as I have, the moment when the terrified boy confesses his terrible secret, "I see dead people," is truly chilling. Osment's is arguably the best performance by an actor under age 13 in a generation.

As the equally, though differently, haunted Dr. Crowe, Bruce Willis (ordinarily an obnoxiously smug screen presence), is remarkably restrained. In early scenes with Olivia Williams (RUSHMORE) as his wife (and how nice it is to see a gorgeous actress with chubby upper arms!) he seems to have absolutely no feel for his character, but once he is able to play off of Osment's wise child, he finds a quiet, sensitive tone and manages to sustain the right notes of calm reassurance with a touch of self-doubt. There's nary a smirk in sight.

Also worth mentioning is Toni Collette as Cole's mother. A single mother with two jobs, trying to make ends meet while dealing with her clearly troubled son, she skillfully portrays both the devotion and frustration involved in raising a child alone, let alone one with Cole's terrifying "gift."

Not since THE CRYING GAME has a film's "secret" been so carefully guarded by its fans...and this critic is not about to blow it for the reader. Yet the plot twist, which virtually requires a second viewing, is only part of what makes this story so effective. While there are a few "gasp moments", the film is less a horror story than a psychological study of the various traumas that haunt ordinary people living ordinary lives. I would like to believe that it is these richly drawn, very human characters, and not the "gimmick", that truly resonate with the viewer.

The film is weakened only by a slight descent into mawkishness at the end of the film, which somewhat dilutes the power of what we have just seen for the last two hours. However, this is a minor complaint that in no way detracts from the most original film of the year thus far, boasting a performance that ought to generate an Academy Award nomination for its young star.

THE SIXTH SENSE official site

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti except where indicated as copyright of the author. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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