“I see dead people,” confides Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled, sensitive boy who has been greatly burdened by this terrible psychic gift. So traumatized is he by the terrifying apparitions that appear before him, ghosts who do not know they’re dead, that his mother (Toni Collette) has become alarmed and thinks he needs help.
Cole can’t tell this disturbing secret to his mother. Instead he shares it with Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a psychologist who wishes to help the boy, but who at first does not believe him.
Nonetheless, Malcolm is determined to help Cole, partly to make up for a terrible failure Malcolm had with an earlier patient. That patient, a troubled adult who had been treated by Malcolm as a child, broke into Malcolm’s house one night and shot him in front of his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), before turning the gun on himself.
This is the set-up of THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), a masterful supernatural drama with compelling characters, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
THE SIXTH SENSE has become famous for its unexpected ending, which I won’t spoil here, and which makes us look back at everything that came before in a different light. Shyamalan has often tried to incorporate such endings into his subsequent films, with varying degrees of success. THE SIXTH SENSE remains his triumph.
The early scenes in which we get to glimpse the dead people who inflict themselves on Cole are eerie and frightening.
But the heart of the film is the solid and touching relationship between Malcolm and Cole. Before he can help Cole, Malcolm has to overcome his own skepticism, and believe in the boy’s claim that he can see the dead, and it’s to the psychologist’s credit that he does so.
After that, Malcolm goes a step further, and finds a way to help Cole deal with this ability. He advises Cole that, instead of running in terror from the dead, Cole must find out what they are seeking, and help them if possible.
By the end, Cole will help Malcolm too, helping him find ways to reach out to his beloved Anna, who has become increasingly distant since the night the patient broke into their house.
Osment and Willis are both superb in their roles, providing performance of considerable emotional power. They are given crucial support by Collette and Williams.
That’s hardly all there is to THE SIXTH SENSE. Shyamalan proves himself to be a sure touch with lighting and creative camera setups, knowing how to instill tension and dread throughout. The film’s setting, Philadelphia, is like a character itself, looking stately, imbued with the sadness of history, and starkly ominous throughout.
And then there’s the ending, which if you’re lucky enough to be completely fooled by it (as I was), delivers a wonderful revelatory wallop.
Despite all the dread and gloom, good things develop by the end, including sure signs of healing in the film’s two broken relationships, that between Cole and his mom, and between Malcolm and Anna.
THE SIXTH SENSE is a ghost story that has brains and heart, in addition to providing a generous helping of skillfully rendered scare scenes.
MALCOLM: Once upon a time there was this person named Malcolm. He worked with children. He loved it. He loved it more than anything else. And then one night, he found out that he made a mistake with one of them. He couldn’t help that one. And he can’t stop thinking about it, he can’t forget. Ever since then, things have been different. He’s not the same person that he used to be. And his wife doesn’t like the person that he’s become. They barely speak anymore, they’re like strangers. And then one day Malcolm meets this wonderful little boy, a really cool little boy. Reminds him a lot of the other one. And Malcolm decides to try and help this new boy. ‘Cause he feels that if he can help this new boy, it would be like helping that other one, too.
COLE: How does the story end?
MALCOLM: I don’t know.