`Sixth Sense': Dreamy Yet Genuinely Unsettling

Movie review XXX "The Sixth Sense," with Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams. Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan. 107 minutes. Several theaters. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised because of intense thematic material and violent images.

Rarely has a filmmaker made a recovery as complete as "The Sixth Sense." It's the third writing-directing effort from 28-year-old M. Night Shyamalan, whose sophomore movie, "Wide Awake," was platitudinous and dramatically inert (his 1993 debut, "Praying With Anger," has not yet been released).

Both pictures are concerned with children and their understanding of death, but there's a world of difference in how they approach the subject. "Wide Awake" was the story of a child coming to terms with the death of his grandfather. "The Sixth Sense" focuses on a boy who appears to have the ability to see dead people and communicate with them.

It may just be that the Philadelphia-based Shyamalan is better at creating dread than uplift, but "The Sixth Sense" clicks in a way that the earlier, sunnier picture never did. Although it has its sentimental moments, especially near the end, the picture is genuinely unsettling, in a way that no other film this summer has been - and that includes "The Blair Witch Project."

Eleven-year-old Haley Joel Osment, who played Tom Hanks' son in "Forrest Gump" and Avery Brown on "Murphy Brown," is Shyamalan's chief asset. He effortlessly brings an otherworldly quality to Cole Sear, an 8-year-old who won't tell his concerned mother (Toni Collette) what's bothering him. But he will open up to Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a gentle child psychologist who eventually gets Cole to tell him what he sees and feels.

It turns out that the dead people Cole knows have not severed their connections with the living, who in some cases have hurt them too deeply. Cole sometimes feels threatened by these spirits - they even leave marks on his body that his mother gets blamed for creating - and they show him things that are almost too horrendous for a child to bear. But he also communicates with dead people who have reassuring messages to send the living.

There's a dream-like quality to much of "The Sixth Sense" that suggests that the story is taking place on some undefined other level, yet it's not clear until the twist ending exactly what that might be.

Early in the picture, one of Dr. Crowe's frightened patients (Donnie Wahlberg) turns up at the doctor's home and terrifies Crowe and his wife (Olivia Williams). The episode ends without resolution, and the wife becomes a near-phantom throughout the rest of the picture.

Dr. Crowe keeps ignoring her, showing up late for dinner, growing jealous as he watches her embark on a more satisfying relationship with someone else. Shyamalan artfully hints at what all this might mean, while continuing to concentrate on what Cole has to reveal to Dr. Crowe.

There's nothing forced about Osment's work here. He suggests the gravity and intelligence that Henry Thomas brought to "E.T." and the young Roddy McDowall demonstrated in "How Green Was My Valley." There's no show-bizzy precocity about what he does.

The boy has an uncanny ability to suggest Cole's secretive, haunted soul, and he seems to have inspired Willis to give perhaps his most self-effacing performance. If you couldn't take this relationship seriously, there would be no movie - and these two actors may never be better than they are here.