by Shari L. Rosenblum

The communion between the living and the waking/walking dead has long been a lure of the horror genre. It is not surprising, therefore, that the promoters of N. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense have chosen to let the whispered confession of the film's young lead (Haley Joel Osment as Cole Sear) pierce through the film's trailer: "I see dead people." The high pitch of the child's softest voice reverberates like a stifled shriek and hints at a horror too horrible to speak aloud. It is an invitation, of sorts, for the thrill-seeking viewer to share in a small boy's forever Hallow's Eve. But the enticement of the ghost tale tingle that ripples through the audience may be somewhat misleading. The Sixth Sense is not a horror film along the lines of Halloween or even The Blair Witch Project. It does not weave a cautionary tale against sexual indiscretion, social impropriety or the failure to listen to grown-ups. It is, instead, a throwback to the vintage episodes of The Twilight Zone - dark parable - where no ghost ever haunts just for the hellishness of it.

There are no ghosts, in fact, in the opening of The Sixth Sense, where we find child psychiatrist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), toasting the honors that Dr. Crowe has been awarded for his work. Or no ghosts that we can see. There is just the sudden chill in the basement air as Anna Crowe selects a wine to fete her husband's success - and the shadow in the eyes of Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg), the young man who intrudes on the quiet celebration as withered witness to Dr. Crowe's worst failure.

But this is merely prologue. The real story takes place during the fall that follows, as Dr. Crowe takes on a new patient: young Cole Sear. At just eight years old, Cole is already firmly entrenched in a dark dread. Withdrawn and non-communicative, choked by a secret he cannot share, his symptoms eerily mirror the diagnosis of that other young patient Dr. Crowe failed to save. So the good doctor, tormented still by what came before, vows to make it right this time, to plumb the depths he failed to reach behind the eyes of Vincent Gray, and the young boy waits, again, to see if he can trust.

It is not until some time into the story that Cole does trust enough to confide to Dr. Crowe and to us the secret his name hints at ("Sear" = "seer") and the trailer so indecorously spills, but somehow it doesn't really matter. By the time the anticipated scene plays out in the full-length feature, the audience is already looking beyond the fright-night revelation. We have followed along as the child and the man learn to brave the demons that haunt them each on their own. We have watched the child's mother (Toni Collette), excluded from the workings of the doctor/patient pairing, swallow the fears that threaten to swallow her. So though the horror play within the film may still work to shock us - I know I jumped more than once - we have nonetheless moved on to anticipate the film's alternative vision: the terror is not in the walking dead but in the secret that seeing them imposes on Cole, a secret he needs to share but fears that he cannot. Herein lies the heart of the film: not the horror, but the sadness of being silenced when the soul needs to speak. It is no longer now the pitch of Cole's confession, but the tear in his voice that grabs at the gut.

Now, I'm not always a fan of child actors. Beam adorably though they may, they often sacrifice to the conscious falseness of filmmaking the freshness and fragility that makes children so precious. But there was young Master Osment, even standing among ghosts or speaking Latin, making me believe. My heart ached for him. Physically ached. And I am fully aware that Bruce Willis is one of those stars that all the cool kids hate, but I have always liked him - and I especially liked him in this. There was an earnestness in his delivery, a discernible paternal warmth in his performance, and a vulnerability palpable enough to belie any charge that he is all smirk and cocky attitude. Toni Collette is persuasive in a mostly thankless role, though her dramatic position is precisely matched by her structural one. Both as Cole's mom, and as film actor, she does just about everything right, but is not given the chance to show Cole or us just how good she can be. Yet in the last reel, I suppose, there is the hint that her time will come.

The Sixth Sense is nicely crafted, building obviously towards a conclusion not always obvious, and moving with a thematic consistency - element for element (names, places) - that makes its end inescapable, no matter where one might have thought it was going as the film wound down. The Sixth Sense is not, of course, without its logical flaws or ill-advised moments, but the bad choices are quickly forgotten and the flaws don't really impose themselves until the film's close, by which time the viewer has better things to think about.

Shari L. Rosenblum

CineScene, 1999