As Bruce Fretts explains, a great ending can sometimes redeem a mediocre movie

By Bruce Fretts
Updated August 18, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Sixth Sense

  • Movie

”The Sixth Sense” leaves audiences gasping

If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry: I’m not going to give away the surprise ending of ”The Sixth Sense” (and I hope no one else will on the board below, either). But what a great twist! Up until this final plot point, I was underwhelmed by the film, but it single-handedly made everything that had gone before seem much more interesting. And this is not the first time a shocking conclusion has saved a movie.

I had no intention of seeing ”The Sixth Sense.” Unlike the rest of America, apparently, I was unimpressed by the trailer, with ex-”Jeff Foxworthy Show” squirt Haley Joel Osment whispering the tag line ”I see dead people.” Then I read the rapturous reviews and saw the out-of-this-world opening-weekend grosses and decided that it was my professional duty to see what all the fuss was about.

The first scene is unsettling. Child psychologist Bruce Willis is confronted by an emotionally unstable former patient, played by an almost-unrecognizable Donnie Wahlberg. Although he’s only on screen for a few minutes, the former New Kid on the Block gives the film’s one truly remarkable turn. Willis and Osment have received all the praise, but their performances, while effective, are essentially one-note (Willis is pensively concerned, Osment is quietly anguished).

The following hour is fairly boring, as Osment’s tormented tot seeks help from his mom (Toni Collette, who does most of her acting with her nail polish) as well as Willis. Then the brat finally utters his now-immortal catchphrase, and the ghosts start showing up.

I haven’t heard so much screaming in a theater since ”Jaws,” but most of the scare tactics are cheap Hollywood tricks — shadowy figures darting out from corners, gratuitous gore, etc. Then comes the final shock, and you realize what a clever setup writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has crafted. I immediately wanted to see ”Sense” again so I could watch it in light of this startling revelation.

Several of the reviews had alluded to the gotcha ending, yet I still didn’t see it coming. That was also the case earlier this summer with the Jeff Bridges-Tim Robbins flick ”Arlington Road.” Despite the superb cast, it seems like a formulaic neighbor-from-hell thriller — until the last scene pulls the rug out from under you. Unfortunately, ”Road” got lost amid the crush of July releases, but it’s definitely worth an eventual rental if you didn’t catch it in the theater.

In the meantime, plenty of other films with enjoyably out-of-left-field endings can be found at the video store, including another in which Willis played a shrink, 1994’s lurid ”Color of Night.” Kevin Costner fooled his fans in 1987’s ”No Way Out” (he unintentionally repeated the feat with both ”Waterworld” and ”The Postman”). And of course, the mother of all doozy denouements is ”Psycho.” Just make sure you rent Alfred Hitchcock’s original, not Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake — that’s a different kind of Master bait-and-switch.

Episode Recaps

The Sixth Sense

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 107 minutes