Try hard

The Sixth Sense is but a ghost of a movie

The Sixth Sense, a kind of touchy-feely horror movie, wants to do it all -- scare the hell out of us at the same time that it makes us feel good about life and death. It wants us to believe that an 8-year-old boy in Philadelphia, Cole Sear (blue-eyed, winning Haley Joel Osment), has an unsettling power to see and communicate with the dead -- some of them gruesomely hanged, others with their wrists slashed or their heads bashed in. It wants us to believe that a traumatized child psychologist has the power to help the troubled boy (and himself) find peace. It even wants us to believe that tough guy Bruce Willis is capable of playing Dr. Malcolm Crowe, the child psychologist.

In other words, a tall order on every count. This murky, often maddening piece of work can be entertaining -- not least when assorted walking, talking corpses start showing themselves in little Cole's bedroom, in the kitchen, and in the hallway at his elementary school. But beyond these startling apparitions (the director obviously remembers those two little girls standing at the end of the corridor in The Shining), there's a surplus of mumbo jumbo in here -- and some ludicrously false notes.

For instance, what are we to make of the doctor's wife (Olivia Williams) when she admires his "gift for teaching children how to be strong in spots where most adults would piss on themselves?" An elegant turn of phrase, no? And what are we to make of the fact that a highly disturbed former patient suddenly and inexplicably materializes in their bathroom, raving that the doctor failed him and waving a gun around?

The only thing truly scary in The Sixth Sense is Bruce Willis' Moonlighting toupee.
The only thing truly scary in The Sixth Sense is Bruce Willis' Moonlighting toupee.

Details

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

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

Opens August 6

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Two years ago, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, himself a Philadelphian by way of India, made his Hollywood debut with Wide Awake, the tale of a Catholic schoolboy coming to grips with the death of his beloved grandfather. It was an observant charmer of a movie that addressed some of the same issues that occupy Shyamalan here -- the need for human connection, the value of family, the nourishment of place. But the flashy sensationalism of The Sixth Sense -- maybe the best thing about it -- is at war with its desire for contemplation. Whenever Doctor Bruce is expounding his theories on what's wrong with the kid, we're impatiently waiting for the next bloody ghost to pop up.

Meanwhile, just what's wrong with Doc? It looks as though his marriage is in big trouble because work has gotten in the way, but some viewers will ask why little Cole seems to be Crowe's only patient and why the boy's tormented mom (Toni Collette) pays so little attention to the doctor-patient relationship. Mysteries -- metaphysical as well as medical -- are Shyamalan's stock-in-trade here, and he may have inserted one too many of them.

He may also have employed one too many Bruce Willises. Say what you want about the man's acting range, but he's still at his best in muscular, wise-cracking parts, and the sensitive bit here may prove unconvincing to his legions of fans. So, too, will the the notion that movie producers get religion every now and then and really want nothing more than to reveal to the rest of us the divine plan of the cosmos and the magnanimity of the dearly departed.

 
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