A terrific last-minute story twist goes a fair way toward redeeming “The Sixth Sense,” a mostly ponderous tale of paranormal communication across the River Styx. Moody, low-key and semi-pretentious effort is ominous without being scary or suspenseful for most of its running time, but the positioning of a child at the center of otherworldly goings-on has worked many times before, and combo of the theme’s proven appeal, Bruce Willis’ presence and the promise of more thrills than it actually delivers (a la “The Haunting”) could spell sleeper status for this late-summer Buena Vista release.
Borderline dull to sit through, “The Sixth Sense” is actually rather interesting to think about afterward because of the revelation of its ending. The film could conceivably be more rewarding upon a second viewing in light of what one knows going in. Few pictures have hinged their effectiveness so completely upon information withheld until the last moment.
Ten-minute prologue has a mental case (Donnie Wahlberg) breaking into the Philadelphia home of child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Willis) and his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams). After accusing the doctor of having failed him, Wahlberg’s character shoots Malcolm before turning the gun on himself.
The following autumn, the slowly recovering Malcolm takes an interest in the case of 8-year-old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), the unusually bright son of sorely taxed single mother Lynn (Toni Collette). Through the accretion of small details revealed with aggravating tediousness in one sluggish reel after another, Cole is presented as a kid obsessed with toy soldiers and religious figures, prone to violent free-association writing, victimized by divorce trauma, able to envision what happened in certain places years before and, most crucial, capable of seeing and hearing the dead.
This news, which comes halfway through, is scarcely surprising but slightly enlivens matters, as pic has until then been largely concerned with Malcolm’s ineffectual attempts to get the guarded kid to open up. Malcolm seems to have been so shaken by his shooting that he has little confidence in his professional abilities, while the preoccupied doc suspects that his lovely wife may be having an affair.
Gradually, Cole’s visions increase — people hanging from the rafters of his school, which used to be a prison, a kid with the back of his head blown away, a teenage girl from the neighborhood dying. Often, as in “The Haunting,” the presence of ghosts is indicated by frosty breath, and James Newton Howard’s score effectively builds and sustains a threatening mood.
But Philadelphia-based writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (“Praying With Anger,” “Wide Awake”) keeps the dramatic temperature low throughout, attempting to make mood and state-of-mind the focus of the film but producing a lot of downtime on a moment-by-moment basis.
Acting is in tune with the overall sense of understatement. Osment, who played Forrest Gump Jr., is the standout here, evoking with his straight-faced intelligence some exceptional British moppet thesps over the years. Willis is at his most subdued, which for long periods makes it seem like he’s sleepwalking through the role, but in the end, his performance makes a lot of sense. Williams and Collette are OK in the seriously circumscribed female parts. Production values are serviceable.