Wednesday 20 July 2016

Movie Review: The Sixth Sense (1999)

A ghost story with heart, The Sixth Sense is a gem of a movie. The story of a deeply troubled young boy being helped by a child psychologist rides a wave of emotion, jolts, and twists to a rousing climax.

In Philadelphia, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a celebrated child psychologist happily married to Anna (Olivia Williams), although she does believe that he has placed his career ahead of their marriage. One night the couple's house is invaded by the deranged Vincent Grey, a former patient of Malcolm's. Claiming that the doctor failed him, Vincent shoots Malcolm in the stomach and then kills himself.

The following fall, Malcolm takes on his next case, 9 year old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). Cole lives with his divorced mother Lynn (Toni Collette), and is a social outcast, hiding out at the local church, barely communicative, made fun of at school, and exhibiting signs of abuse on his body. Malcolm, whose relationship with Anna has disintegrated following the shooting, tries to help Cole by delving into his background to understand what triggered his social withdrawal. Eventually, Cole reveals his shocking secret to Malcolm: he can see dead people. Malcolm at first struggles to believe the young boy's story, then desperately tries to find a way to help him.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense thrives on a sense of understated foreboding. With a slow but effective build up triggered by the opening interruption of a happy marriage and the introduction of Cole as a troubled child, the film reveals its increasingly disconcerting secrets slowly and steadily, offering little relief along the way. Cole's big reveal that he sees ghosts unleashes a torrent of more horror-oriented scenes, and the film combines strong elements of both psychological suspense and straight-out spookiness to excellent effect.

Shyamalan demonstrates plenty of style to go along with the stimulating content. The camerawork is showy but playfully potent, a red balloon in the middle of a spiral staircase as example of an exclamatory opportunity to introduce an episode of horror. The film's palette is dominated by the muted greys and blues of the ghostly world, with red often used as a punctuation.

Haley Joel Osment delivers an outstanding child performance, in turns vulnerable, resilient and scared. Osment grows with the character over the duration of the film, and once Cole comes to understand his conundrum and what to do about it, Osment's evolution is subtle but essential. Bruce Willis creates one of his most complex roles in Dr. Crowe, and proves his serious abilities in a dramatic yet subdued context. Toni Collette contributes strong support as Cole's mother Lynn, and reaches an unforgettable highlight in a late revelatory scene with Osment at the scene of a car accident.

Thematically The Sixth Sense assembles a puzzle about missing fathers, unfinished business, life's truncated journeys, the need to properly close chapters, and the regrets that haunt both the living and the dead. The film unfurls a blanket of sadness where none of the main characters are remotely happy, Malcolm, Cole, Lynn and Anna all harbouring deep sorrows and imbedded fears. But just underneath all the grief lies a reservoir of good will and potential relief. The story of Cole and Malcolm is all about approaching scary challenge from a different perspective to unlock the pathway to contentment.

The Sixth Sense ends with one of Hollywood's most famous twist endings. Although possible to foresee, the sting in the tail in nevertheless deftly handled and adds a layer of reciprocal depth to the relationship between child and doctor. Without the twist, The Sixth Sense is brilliantly poignant ghost story; with it, the film is a cinematic masterpiece.

All Ace Black Movie Blog Reviews are here.

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