Bruce Willis in a tired new genre: therapy thriller.

HOLLYWOOD HAS LONG been fond of ghost stories, but The Sixth Sense reflects a more '90s obsession—therapy. It's not enough to scare or entertain the audience. We need to be cured. We need to recover.

The Sixth Sense

directed by M. Night Shyamalan

starring Bruce Willis, Toni Collette

opens August 6 at Pacific Place and others

That palliative spirit haunts this slow, muddled, and derivative film more than any poltergeist. Expect no shocks or screaming demons; instead, lie back on the couch and tell Dr. Bruce what's bothering you.

"You have a secret, but you don't want to tell me," Willis says in an uncharacteristically subdued, un-Viennese voice. He's speaking to an eight-year-old patient (Haley Joel Osmont), who is traumatized by the divorce of his mother (Toni Collette of Muriel's Wedding) and now-deceased father.

Yet Willis needs plenty of help himself. He's guilt-ridden over the suicide of the boy's father, a former patient who also shot the good doctor during a session probably not covered by his HMO. And his wife seems to ignore him completely. "I know that I've been a little distant," he apologizes, while still buried in his work.

The uncovering of the disturbed boy's secret proceeds at an achingly slow pace. Viewers may wonder what insurance company would pay for so many intensive one-on-one sessions. Sure, the kid claims to see ghosts, but wouldn't Haldol be a speedier way of treating his symptoms—and our boredom?

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan belabors these therapeutic encounters as if so much portentous stilted dialogue could somehow produce a talking cure. The same basic scene seems to play out over and over again between Willis and the lad, in a solemn, smothering tone of father-son surrogacy. Shyamalan's heavy-handed storytelling lacquers the usually lively Willis and Collette with a stiff coat of varnish.

Things pick up briefly when the ghosts finally arrive—but by then it's too late to save the film. The Sixth Sense becomes deeply silly as Willis coaxes his patient to join his noble profession and treat the undead. The precocious lad even takes to giving marital advice to Willis. What's next—a self-help book and appearance on Oprah?

Serving as a kind of medium/MD for the spirit world hardly seems like a happy outcome for this troubled child. Yet Shyamalan's earnest medicinal faith in Healing, Health, and Recovery presents just such an ending. (The film's abrupt resolution also owes much to Jacob's Ladder.) It shows how the old, pop-Freudian analysis of ghosts and monsters—signifying the repressed—has been eclipsed by the process of analysis itself. Perhaps Hollywood thinks group therapy is more inherently dramatic than any script or story.

Packed into a single episode of The X-Files or The Twilight Zone, The Sixth Sense might've made for a decent 60-minute ghost story. Wanting to be spooky rather than shocking is a fine goal, particularly when the ghost film genre has largely devolved into horror and slasher flicks. Yet achieving the creepy calm of Rosemary's Baby or Repulsion requires more restraint and less catharsis. Despite Shyamalan's ministrations, this patient dies on the table.

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