Viewers pretty much know three things going into an M. Night Shyamalan film: there will be ghosts or other elements of the supernatural, Mr. Shyamalan will make a cameo appearance, and most likely there'll be a trick ending. Sometimes, there's a fourth common denominator, because the Indian-born director seems most comfortable filming in and around the Philadelphia area where he was raised.
For me, the first of his supernatural thrillers remains the best. Shyamalan's script and direction are taut, Haley Joel Osment delivers an Oscar-worthy performance (though he lost to Michael Caine from "The Cider House Rules"), and Bruce Willis cast against type rises to the occasion. More so than in "Unbreakable" (2000), "Signs" (2002), "The Village" (2004), "Lady in the Water" (2006) or his latest film, "The Happening" (2008), Shyamalan manages to create a credible tension from the outset and sustain it without any lapses. There are no "Hollywood" moments when you feel as if you're being manipulated by ominous music or other tricks that mask a completely mundane moment. The tension in "The Sixth Sense" feels completely natural, and that's one big reason why it made the AFI list of "100 Thrills." It's a bona fide psychological thriller that replicates the interior of a disturbed psyche without resorting to camera tricks or heavy-handed direction-and in that, Shyamalan is on the same page as his cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto ("The Silence of the Lambs"), who relies on architectural images and reflections to echo inner disturbances.
Willis plays Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist who, in the opening sequence, is admiring a plaque he just received from the mayor of Philadelphia with his wife (Olivia Williams) when they notice someone has broken into their home. A very pale and shaky Vincent Grey (Donnie Wahlberg), stands in the couple's bathroom wearing nothing but his jockey shorts. "You didn't help me," he tells the doctor, whom he accuses of not even remembering him. And then he shoots him.
Fast-forward into the future, where we see that the shot traumatized Dr. Crowe more than physically. It shook his foundations and made him question himself as a doctor. Now, he's following a boy named Cole Sear (Osment), who lives with his mother (Toni Collette) in an apartment that's often freezing. That's because Cole, who has no friends and is repeatedly called "freak," is visited by dead people who come to him, and when dead people are angry or agitated they bring down the temperature.
In one of the most effective scenes, as Dr. Crowe tries to gain the boy's confidence so he can help him, he asks the boy to play a mind game with him. If he can correctly guess something, the boy must take a step closer. If he misses, the boy takes a step backwards. If he comes so close that he's by the chair, he has to sit down and talk. But if he keeps retreating and gets close to the door, he can leave. Shyamalan handles this scene with perfect pacing, and it's probably one of the most effective I've seen at delivering basic information. It turns out that the boy got in trouble for drawing things that he saw or writing down the things he heard from the many ghosts who've visited with such frightening frequency that he has set up a tent in his room which is lined with religious icons. It's his safe haven, and the bulk of the movie follows Dr. Crowe's attempts to help the boy rid himself of these haunting figures so that he and his mother can lead a normal life. And in a subplot, Dr. Crowe realizes that he's neglected his loving wife, and resents that she seems to be seeing a co-worker. In classic Hollywood fashion (and here's probably the slickest part of the screenplay, aside from the ending) the boy tries to help him deal with his problem even as the doctor is working to fix the boy's.
As John J. Puccio wrote in his review, it's "reassuring to know that a relatively small, quiet film can become a runaway hit in this age of special-effects extravaganzas." Which is to say, if you're looking for special effects, go to the Haunted Mansion at one of the Disney theme parks. It's not that kind of movie. It is a relatively quiet film, and Shyamalan pulls what is probably the most understated performance out of Willis that he's ever delivered. The doctor is almost ancillary to the boy who commands both his focus and ours, and Willis never does anything to take away from that. Besides tension and thrills there's genuine emotion in this film, and that, as much as any of the ghosts or apparitions, may be the most startling element of all.
"The Sixth Sense" comes to BD-50 disc via AVC/MPEG-4 technology, and while there's a softness to the overall look of the film, it's the same look I remember from the theatrical release. This is, after all, a quiet film, and too much hyper-clarity can work against the atmosphere Shyamalan is trying to create. Colors are also slightly muted except in bright daylight scenes when the mood has also shifted. But if you pay close attention to the edges of figures and objects you'll see that the level of detail is quite good, and the black levels are sufficient to pull detail out of the mid ranges. "The Sixth Sense" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
I'm glad that Disney went with an English PCM 5.1 (48kHz/16-bit) audio, because the soundtrack is dynamic enough to push the silences that often drive this film. Even the slightest sound is rendered with pinpoint clarity, which helps sustain the tension. Bass and treble levels are well balanced, but more importantly so are the levels of dialogue, music, and sound effects. As with the actors, each has its place and never draws undue attention. Additional audio options are a less dynamic English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 and a Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
No commentary track, unfortunately, but at least Shyamalan shows up for a 39-minute "making of" feature, telling how it was on the third or fourth draft when it finally came to him to have a "hyper-compassionate child" drive the film. Good call. There are other nice insights here, but just enough to make you wish Shyamalan would have gotten onboard for a full commentary. Then there's a feature called "Between Two Worlds" that runs 37 minutes and features the author of "The Exorcist" ("Never in nature is there a desire for things that are unattainable") and others talking about the supernatural and the possibility of ghosts existing. For would-be artists and the hyper-curious, there's a 15-minute feature on "Moving Pictures: The Storyboard Process" that covers predictable ground, and for would-be scorers there's "Music and Sound Design," a six-minute featurette. "Reaching the Audience" reveals that the film opened on Shyamalan's birthday but doesn't have much else to say in three minutes time, and you'd better save "Rules and Clues" till after the movie, because there are spoilers in this six-minute clip-and-heads featurette. Rounding out the bonus features are five deleted/extended scenes, the best of which is an extended ending that will have some fans wondering why Shyamalan made the cut he did. All in all, it's a nice bunch of bonus features, but nothing above-average.
Despite the trick ending, "The Sixth Sense" stands up well under repeated viewing. For that reason alone, it's "collection-worthy." But Osment's performance is positively chilling, more marvelous and accomplished every time you watch this film. This kid was only 11 at the time, and he looks like he's been acting for 11 years. I don't want to give Osment too much credit, but if his performance isn't convincing, neither is any part of this film. He's one big reason why "The Sixth Sense" soars.