Cinema literates know when to expect the unexpected in a thriller. Without giving the slightest bit away, then, let me say that the coolest thing about The Sixth Sense is how this twisty ghost story, about a child who sees dead people all around him, circumvents all such instincts. It’s a psychological thriller that actually thrills.
The reluctant medium is Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a sad little hamster of a boy in atmospherically overcast south Philadelphia. His visions terrify him, especially since the folks still look as they did when they died horrible deaths. Cole lives with his mother (Toni Collette); she’s empathetic, but he’s afraid to tell her about his terrors.
Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), though, is different — a gifted child psychologist who unlocks Cole’s secrets. Much of The Sixth Sense is about the slow building of trust between the boy and the man, who carries his own sorrows; they bond in a process as shadowy as the passing of a spirit through a room. And Willis is sensitively attuned in a nice, quiet performance, establishing a touching connection with his costar — who, not to put it too spookily, utterly carries the movie with his unnerving talent.
The Sixth Sense, which is about X-Files-ishly ”believable” fears and coincidences, enjoys setting up X-Files-ish moments of pleasurable anxiety. To that end, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (Wide Awake), working with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs), creates a coolly askew visual style, investing everyday sights — doorknobs, staircases — with unexplained menace. While the story unspools and sometimes flags, these clues and recurring images amount to little. Running the scenes over in your head afterward, though — and you will, forward and back — uncovers a construction that rewards wide-awake attention.