"The Sixth Sense" is not everything it could be, and for that we should be eternally grateful. There's little bombast, manipulation or he-man posturing to this vaguely European fever-dream of a shocker ... just honest storytelling and human interest.
Don't be turned off by the casting of Bruce Willis as a child therapist who takes on a uniquely troubled client. For all his single-note squinting, Willis is still the only Hollywood regular who does the guardian thing right. (See last year's otherwise unwatchable "Mercury Rising" for proof.) Here he's Dr. Malcolm Crowe, who overcomes crippling feelings of inadequacy to care for Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a youth prone to violent fantasies and episodes of panic. Their precarious relationship is gracefully played, laying a firm grounding for the story's shift into the supernatural.
That transition comes when Cole admits the secret of his distress: He's cursed with an ability to see the dead. Not just occasionally, but every time the restless departed are near -- which is often. Osment's tortured bravery is something to see, a wise-beyond-his-years characterization only hinted at by his highly composed Forrest Junior in "Forrest Gump."
Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan renders the fantastic goings-on with admirable sobriety. His ghosts don't pop out from floor-length mirrors like jack-in-the-box banshees; they walk casually through homes that were once their own, unconcerned with the living interlopers who might catch a glimpse of them when returning from the bathroom in the dead of night. Now that's frightening.
Heart-stopping moments detonate like land mines, yet only occasionally do they break the narrative's smooth terrain. Cole's accommodation to his role as a seer seems swift after his years of reticence, and Crowe is too quick to accept a nonscientific turn of events. Most of the other inconsistencies are rectified in the film's final reel, its hidden cards turned over in a royal flush of a climax.
Sleight-of-hand aside, Shyamalan's efforts connect because of their compassion. Whether made of flesh or vapor, his characters all have their own stories to tell, compelling methods to their midnight madness. By treating the mortal and the dead with equal respect, "The Sixth Sense" holds its audience in the highest regard of all.