The Sixth Sense (1999)

D: M. Night Shyalaman
S: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette

Satisfying emotional thriller with Bruce Willis as a child psychologist who helps troubled Haley Joel Osment, a boy haunted by spirits who don't realise they have passed on. Though this premise doesn't click in until almost an hour into the film, M. Night Shyalaman's gripping screenplay intrigues and absorbs from the outset and retains its hold until the very end. This is a convincing drama about trauma and therapy which retreads territory familiar from a variety of non-genre films including Good Will Hunting with more grace and economy than most. Centred on three strong performances from Willis, Osment, and Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding, Diana & Me) as the boy's divorced mother, and beautifully photographed by Tak Fujimoto, the film has a quiet, reflective tone which builds to a powerful and moving resolution which, although it is a twist (and quite a predictable one, at that), fits perfectly into the film's thematic and psychological core.

It is difficult to discuss the film without spoiling its plot, and indeed part of the pleasure is watching Night Shyalaman unfolding the fireside yarn with neat script and directional touches which make perfect sense when the final revelations have been made (though a series of cutaway flashbacks does rather force it too much). It is to his credit that he has taken what amounts to a Twilight Zone tale and adapted it perfectly for a contemporary audience. Thankfully, believable characterisation and deft handling means that it remains an interesting story throughout, regardless of whether or not you guess the ending.

Though it is a supernatural drama, the film is notably restrained in pyrotechnics. Stan Winston Studio provides make-up effects and Dream Quest Images adds some opticals, but the film builds its atmosphere of dread largely through atmospheric lighting and involving acting. The spectres do not even become visible to the audience until half way through, and, as with the best examples of the ghost story, it is often what is not seen which is most effective (the most terrifying moment comes when Osment hears the ravings of a prisoner in the upstairs room of a mansion which tell a story all of their own). Compared with the likes of The Haunting, the film is reminiscent of the inventive low-budget genre films of the 1940s where suggestion was as much a matter of necessity as choice.

It is reminiscent of The Shining in places, and achieves what Kubrick's film did not in its focus upon the effects of preternatural vision upon a child. Osmet's encounters with the dead occasionally resemble Danny Lloyd's, but where Kubrick became distracted by the joys of steadicam and the study of the disintegration of the family, Night Shyalaman remembers the human dimension and emphasises believable trauma and resolution above grand guignol absurdities.

The same attitude prevails on the level of characterisation and acting. In the lead, Willis proves once again a more interesting actor than he is often given credit for. His star presence never overwhelms his youthful co-star, and he registers a solemn performance which builds great emotional energy without histrionics. Osment works well with this, and the child does a superb job of representing a character forced to age before his time. His physical frailty and psychological vulnerability are constantly reinforced by his quiet vocalisations and his repressed gestures. Though there is a certain amount of visible artifice to it, it is an effective piece of acting in the context of the film on the whole. As his mother, Collette pulls off a convincing American accent, but is also a believable and sympathetic character with more depth than such films often allow. All three keep the film at just the right level throughout, with Olivia Williams less prominent but equally in tune with the melancholy tone as Willis' wife.

It is hard to see this as a mainstream Hollywood film. It is so understated, reflective and emotionally involving that it seems quite alien in a world of hi-octane, big-scare, gross-out, and weepie films which keep trying to go higher, harder, faster than the films which have gone before. The Sixth Sense is simple and effective in a way which few 'big' films have been in recent years, and though it's not necessarily a masterpiece, it certainly ranks among the top films of 1999 and one of the best genre films of the decade. Well worth a look.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.