Child psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe is confronted one night by his former patient Vincent Gray who he failed to help. After Vincent shoots Crowe in the stomach and kills himself, Crowe can't stop thinking about it. A few months later he is hired to help a troubled boy named Cole Sear, who has many of the same problems Vincent had. Crowe sees a chance to redeem himself, but doubts his ability to reach the boy, particularly when Cole claims to see ghosts who don't know they're dead.
WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD
That The Sixth Sense became the phenomenon it did is perhaps less to do with its inherent qualities as a ghost story than the slyly worked "shock" ending being traded off at dinner parties the world over.
Indeed, it drew countless back to the cinema for reappraisal, just to see how they were hoodwinked so easily. The real trick, however, was to deliver such an emotionally complex story in the guise of a horror movie. In fact, nothing in the film was ever what you expected. M. Night Shyamalan, an Indian born but Philadelphia grown director who stems from a family of doctors, has a rather morbid fascination with linking children, spirituality and the paranormal. His first film, the ineffective Wide Awake (1998), studies a young Catholic boy trying to prove the existence of God after his grandfather dies. In The Sixth Sense, his device is more poignant and direct, a ghost story about emotional loss and unresolved differences — in which a boy is the cipher to the needs of the recently departed. A traumatic experience at its mildest, so child psychologist (and, yes, recently deceased) Malcolm Crowe (Willis) comes to his rescue and, in turn, his own.
As is oft the case, watching The Sixth Sense knowing that Willis is a ghost, opens the film up to a different perspective. A game of totting up all the pointers — most of which seem pretty blatant back to front — and just how skilled Shyamalan is at throwing us off the scent. The creative team devised a set of rules in which the film would operate while sustaining the shock of the denouement. Whenever the colour red appears it is a sign of something tainted by the dead; the steaming of breath in the presence of ghosts implys a strong negative emotional undercurrent (thus explaining why Willis' benign therapist doesn't elicit any); and the fact that Crowe can only add clothes to the look he was wearing the night he was killed.
Of course, this does not answer all questions: the fact that ghosts do not know they're ghosts would suggest a degree of personal confusion on their behalf — like why can I only talk to this pint-sized know all? Why do I not sleep or eat? Willis' expert performance, every inch of him understated, is vital in concealing the truth. He is soft and humane, suggesting psychological details with small gestures and an almost whispering tone (a skill only 12 Monkeys has born witness to before). How could he possibly be thought of as dead? But all the evidence is there.
The film, for its first half at least, is terrifically chilling (once the ghosts have proven benign much of its scariness evaporates). With Osment's ability to project childlike vulnerability without mawkishness or smarm, events play to the heart of a very basic human instinct: protecting a child.
When the ghosts appear, they whisk past the camera, the temperature drops suddenly, filigree hand-prints appear on table tops, building to full scale revelations of seemingly normal apparitions — with the exception of their fatal wounds (a boy turns round to reveal that the back of his head has been blown off). Subtlety is the key throughout, not big ding-dong stingers but evocative trails and hints of the truth, most of them mapped out across Osment's tormented face. Shyamalan's direction is the model of restraint — disquiet and stillness pervade while he expertly utilises sound to enhance the discomforting feeling of something indefinable being present (allowing the audience its own "sixth sense").
The background noise is a symphony of hissing breaths, the score, by James Newton Howard, splices in sonorous markers — such as just discernible evil, snarling voices — to add dramatic impact. Visually the film is elegantly austere, The Silence Of The Lambs (1991) cinematographer Tak Fujimoto shoots in mute, autumnal browns and greys, evoking a funereal gloom cast over the European-style architecture of Philadelphia (ironically, the same setting as 12 Monkeys — this city does Willis a lot of favours).
Osment — whose casting was pivotal — is a true discovery. He has to carry the heart of the movie as well as distract us from paying too much attention to Willis', well, deadness. Especially in the moments of supposed peril (the boy is, in fact, never in serious jeopardy) which he faces alone, the young actor handles the fear and vulnerability of his predicament with an emotional force. One of the film's sweetest nuances is in the expertly realised relationship between Cole and his blue collar mother (Collette) — he feels he cannot explain his predicament to her; in turn she cannot comprehend what is tormenting her son — emphasising Shyamalan's message of reconciliation. We must all just connect before it's too late.
There is an unnerving but emotionally satisfying maturity to The Sixth Sense that makes it so much more than a beautifully worked parlour trick. It's a ghost story about being human.