Shrink Rap

Bruce Willis is out of his element as a child psychologist in this emotional horror flick.

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Haley Joel Osment with Bruce Willis in a scene from The Sixth Sense.
Haley Joel Osment with Bruce Willis in a scene from The Sixth Sense.
It's always amusing when the movie industry discovers its spiritual side. Profoundly secular institution that it is, Hollywood promotes, at its peril, the notion that teenagers spewing pea soup in Georgetown can be purged of their demons by Catholic priests, that angels from heaven intercede in the lives of ballplayers on losing clubs, and that lonesome ghosts look out for their former girlfriends back on earth.

Who doesn't suspect that there's an inherent con game, and a condescension, in such plotlines? This inevitably shows up on-screen as insincerity — especially in the irony-laced, post-Capra 1990s. Any moviegoer with half a brain simply knows that the people who made the picture believe in supernatural power only insofar as it sells tickets. If their artificially induced mystical/religious fervor fails to fill the multiplex, these folks will, next time around, shift gears and give Herr Schwarzenegger a bigger gun and more henchmen to shoot.

The Sixth Sense, a kind of touchy-feely horror movie, wants to do it all: scare the hell out of us at the same time that it makes us feel good about life and death. It wants us to believe that an eight-year-old boy in Philadelphia, Cole Sear (blue-eyed, winning Haley Joel Osment), has an unsettling power to see and communicate with the dead — some of them gruesomely hanged, others with their wrists slashed or their heads bashed in. It wants us to believe that a traumatized child psychologist has the power to help the troubled boy (and himself) find peace. It even wants us to believe that tough guy Bruce Willis is capable of playing Dr. Malcolm Crowe, the child psychologist.

In other words, a tall order on every count. This murky, often maddening piece of work can be hugely entertaining — not least when assorted walking, talking corpses start showing themselves in little Cole's bedroom, in the kitchen, and in the hallway at his elementary school. But beyond these startling apparitions (the director obviously remembers those two little girls standing at the end of the corridor in The Shining), there's a surplus of mumbo jumbo in here — and some ludicrously false notes.

For instance, what are we to make of the doctor's wife (Olivia Williams) when she admires his "gift for teaching children how to be strong in spots where most adults would piss on themselves"? An elegant turn of phrase, no? And what are we to make of the fact that a highly disturbed former patient suddenly and inexplicably materializes in their bathroom, raving that the doctor failed him and waving a gun around?

Two years ago, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, himself a Philadelphian by way of India, made his Hollywood debut with Wide Awake, the tale of a Catholic schoolboy coming to grips with the death of his beloved grandfather. It was an observant charmer of a movie that addressed some of the same issues that occupy Shyamalan here — the need for human connection, the value of family, the nourishment of place. But the flashy sensationalism of The Sixth Sense — maybe the best thing about it — is at war with its desire for contemplation. Whenever Doctor Bruce is expounding his theories on what's wrong with the kid, we're impatiently waiting for the next bloody ghost to pop up.

Meanwhile, just what's wrong with Doc? It looks as though his marriage is in big trouble because work has gotten in the way, but some viewers will ask why little Cole seems to be Crowe's only patient and the boy's tormented mom (Toni Collette) pays so little attention to the doctor-patient relationship. Mysteries — metaphysical as well as medical — are Shyamalan's stock-in-trade here, and he may have inserted one too many of them.

He may also have employed one too many Bruce Willises. Say what you want about the man's acting range, but he's still at his best in muscular, wisecracking parts, and the sensitive psychologist bit here may prove as unconvincing to his legions of fans as, well . . . as the notion that movie producers get religion every now and then and really want nothing more than to reveal to the rest of us the divine plan of the cosmos and the magnanimity of the dearly departed.Haley Joel Osment with Bruce Willis in a scene from The Sixth Sense.

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