Movies that play on our fears of a child in peril have a tricky time of it. Push things too far and the suspense becomes unpleasant. The supernatural thriller "The Sixth Sense," about a little boy cursed with the gift of seeing the dead, never goes over the edge in exploitation. But because the movie never fully engages us, it never quite manages to allay our queasiness about watching the boy's distress. And that's compounded (unintentionally) by Haley Joel Osment's intense performance as Cole, the young seer. For all the attention M. Night Shyamalan pays to the look and mood of the movie, he's a klutz when it comes to plotting and characterization. And because his clumsiness keeps us outside Cole, he never achieves the empathy the character deserves. So the movie becomes the vaguely unpleasant task of watching a child's suffering from arm's length.
The core of "The Sixth Sense" is Cole's relationship with Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychiatrist who's never recovered from being unable to help a particularly troubled patient. Malcolm sees Cole as his second chance (haven't we all earned a break from redemption movies?). But he becomes distracted from his wife (played by Olivia Williams, who was the best thing in the inexplicably overrated -- and just plain inexplicable -- "Rushmore" and has nothing to do here), and an unaccountable distance begins creeping into the marriage.
There are some horror movies, like "The Innocents," poetic enough to get by on mood. Shyamalan, though, is a pedant. He appears to think he's creating an eerie atmosphere layer by layer with the movie's unrelievedly dingy look (it was shot by Tak Fujimoto) and the funereal pacing of each scene. But the tempo only makes you wonder where the movie's connective tissue has gone. Some scenes are nonsensical. When Cole is locked in a crawl space at a birthday party and screams to get out while his mother (Toni Collette) pulls frantically at the locked door, I couldn't figure out why Shyamalan had directed the actresses playing the rest of the mothers to just stand around and watch her. And though we're told Cole's talent is seeing the dead, he appears, in one scene where he humiliates a school teacher, to be able to read the minds of the living. And Malcolm's explanation to Cole that maybe the dead people he sees are trying to talk to him never explains the physical abuse the ghosts inflict on him. Shyamalan also makes the mistake of showing us the ghosts; as soon as we get a look at them, all fear dissipates.
Shyamalan seems to have no idea how to dramatize anything. We expect there to be a conflict between Malcolm's belief that Cole is suffering from a form of psychosis and our knowledge that the little boy's visions are real; the director simply introduces a bit of business that convinces Malcolm, and the movie proceeds from there. There isn't even a scene where Willis has to admit to himself that the paranormal actually exists. (Shyamalan even botches Malcolm's discovery that Cole is telling the truth -- he finds the proof he needs on a tape recording. But while it plays, the director allows James Newton Howard's score to drown it out.)
Maybe Shyamalan's ineptness is a blessing. If he decided to dramatize every scene we might have to suffer through more sequences like the horrendous one where Cole goes to a dead girl's funeral to deliver a message to her father. The revelation mixes gruesomeness with mawkishness and piles anguish on a character who's already grieving a dead child; just watching it made me feel unclean.
Of the actors, Toni Collette, who's built a impressive body of supporting performances (like the wounded and brittle one she gave in "Velvet Goldmine") comes off best. When her Lynn takes Cole to a party at the home of a well-to-do schoolmate, without overdoing a thing she lets you feel exactly how out of place this working-class woman feels in the plush surroundings. I wish the role allowed more of her humor to come out, but there's a nice persevering toughness under her worn-out surface. She also has the movie's creepiest moment, looking at photos of her son and realizing that in each picture, there's an inexplicable streak of light hovering near him.
Bruce Willis connects effortlessly with his young co-star Osment, but their scenes haven't been directed to build on the connection. There's nothing wrong with Willis' performance, and it's great to see him cast in something besides an action movie. He's an essentially warm, believable actor, and he has enough charisma not to turn the role of an ordinary guy into a dullard. But Shyamalan's conception of the role, which builds up to a final kicker, tamps Willis down. (He's genuine enough in the tricked-up finale to make you wish he'd find a film worthy of that emotion.)
I'll give this to "The Sixth Sense": It's the cause for the funniest production note I've read in years. In Shyamalan's bio (included in the press material) we're told, "At age 17, he stood before his parents, both doctors, surrounded by pictures of the other twelve doctors in his family, and informed them that although he graduated cum laude and received academic scholarships to several prestigious medical programs, he had instead decided to attend the New York University Tisch School of the Arts to study filmmaking." Just think, he broke his poor parents' hearts to make this mishigas. Kids.