Published August 1, 1999
As a rule, I think I have as good an eye for “gaggingly mawkish supernatural kitsch” as the next critic, but I found I couldn’t agree with this description by Stephen Holden, the critic for the New York Times, of The Sixth Sense. For some reason more or less obscure to me — perhaps it is the combination of highly realistic images with a patently unreal context — the movies always seem to have lent themselves to metaphysical fables about the afterlife. The best of these, going back to Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Between Two Worlds and Stairway to Heaven (a.k.a. A Matter of Life and Death), have managed to skirt the danger of sentimentality more or less successfully by preserving something of the mystery and solemnity of the dead even as they raise a corner of the curtain to give us a glimpse into the great beyond.
The failures, like last year’s What Dreams May Come, fail through overconceiving their heavens and hells. In revealing too much they make us too much aware of the artifice and come to look merely silly and unbelievable. Dante, presumably, would never work on film. But The Sixth Sense does not make this mistake. In fact, the world of the dead remains almost as mysterious at the end as it is at the beginning of the film. Moreover, it doesn’t look too weird, like a self-indulgent sci-fi fantasy, but makes use of a long and honorable tradition in folklore (to which even Hamlet owes a debt) of seeing ghosts as the recent dead who are unable to rest because they have unfinished business with the living.
On the basis of Wide Awake (1997), his earlier effort, you wouldn’t have guessed that the oddly named M. Night Shyamalan, who writes and directs, was capable of such understatement and restraint. The earlier film, set like this one in Philadelphia, really was mawkish in its depiction of a boy trying to make contact with his dead grandpa. But the boy in this film, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), has the opposite problem: he encounters the dead everywhere, and they naturally terrify him. An eminent child psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), tries to help him — because “I don’t want to be scared anymore.” But gradually the doctor himself comes to believe in the boy’s “hallucinations.”
Through much of this movie, you will think there is way too much going on and that it takes far too long to get to its main subject. Not until we are an hour into the film, for example, do we learn the boy’s “secret” — that “I see dead people.” In the meantime, we are asked to pay attention not only to his scary predicament, but also to the struggles of his single mother, Lynn (Toni Collette), her grief over her own mother’s death, Cole’s devastation over his parents’ divorce and his bullying by a classmate at school — who has ambitions to be a child actor. In addition, we must concern ourselves with Dr. Crowe’s apparent wounding by a disgruntled former patient, which begins the film, his workaholicism and the strains it is placing on his marriage to Anna (Olivia Williams) and the latter’s pursuit by a fellow employee at the jewelry shop where she works, who is apparently intent on an affair.
What does a ghost story want with all that extraneous stuff? But the dénouement is a brilliant coup de theatre in which all the seemingly loose ends are tied up with a flourish and we are left a little breathless with admiration. Indeed, the movie could be faulted for so calling attention to its own artifice at the crucial moment when we begin to understand, with a shock, the desires of the dead. It’s not nearly as bad as the painterly excesses of What Dreams May Come, however, and its show-offiness really does have something to show off beyond a skill at visual pastiche. In the end the film offers the same sort of pleasure as a cleverly-made whodunnit in which the author successfully manages to keep us in the dark as to the identity of the culprit until the last page.
This means that I can say little else about the film without giving away the stunning ending. And, as I recommend it as “worth seeing,” I will resist the temptation to do that. But I can say that it made a believer of me in respect of its basic metaphysical premiss. Cole tells the doctor that the dead “don’t see each other. . .They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” It’s not how we are used to thinking of the dear departed, even as they appear in the movies, but it makes total sense in its context and so also allows the film to do what such films do all too rarely, which is to persuade us, for a moment anyway, that we can understand and so begin to live with the great ineffable of the human universe.