I can’t believe there is anybody left who doesn’t already know the ‘twist’ to this movie but, I won’t give it out anyway. It’s difficult to see, watching the film for the first time already knowing what the twist is, that anybody watching it wouldn’t get it – it’s signposted throughout – but, if they did, then fairplay to the director and actors for selling it so well. I understand that Shyamalan has gathered a reputation for making absurdly bad movies but this one is nicely played, even if its premise is rather silly and some of the storytelling is of the blatently telling-not-showing variety.
We start with Bruce Willis’ character, Michael, a respected child psychologist (this is one of the clumsy exposition points), at home with his wife when an intruder breaks into the house. This intruder is one of Michael’s past patients, Vincent (Donnie Wahlberg) come to punish him for not having properly cured his problems. After a violent, traumatic episode, Michael then gets to work with another young patient, Cole (Haley Joel Osment), who has problems reminiscent of Vincent’s. Cole’s problems manifest like Vincent’s but Cole’s explanation, it transpires, is that he can “see dead people”. The film gets around half an hour in before Cole reveals this to Michael but this hardly counts as a spoiler since this was the film’s premise and its advertising tagline. Dead people constantly appear to Cole, frightening him and apparently hurting him, but everyone assumes Cole is simply morbid, disturbed and self-harming. Michael becomes obsessed with helping Cole, even if he can’t believe Cole’s story, and gives a sympathetic ear while he tries to get to the root of his problems, hoping that he can make up for his previous, spectacular, failure with Vincent but the pressure seems to be driving a wedge between him and his wife and they no longer talk.
Since we see the ghosts as Cole sees them, there is little (though not no) doubt that this is a supernatural thriller; There are numerous nice touches and there is a nicely creepy feel to the film, although with few real chills, but there are also numerous points where the plot seems laboured in order to push the ‘trick’. I wonder, if I’d seen this at the time of release, and with no knowledge of its central twist whether I’d have fallen for it and, if so, whether I’d have enjoyed it more. As it stands, I can see plausible reasons why Shyamalan’s subsequent films were less successful. Without the terrific performances from Willis and Osment, along with strong backing from Olivia Williams (always good value) and Toni Collette, this film would have collapsed under the weight of its own silliness.