[Deep Focus]
Haley Joel Osment

Admirably creepy but glacially slow, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan's pre-millennial ghost story is at its best when it draws us inexorably into the haunted psyche of a little boy who can see the specters of dead people as though they're standing in the room next to him. The boy, evocatively named Cole Sear, is played impressively by Haley Joel Osment, whose face is pulled into a perpetually stricken mask, as though tiny, invisible lead weights were dangling from his skin.

Cole is struggling through grade school, where his classmates think of him as a freak and tease him cruelly. The simple truth is that Cole is a freak, the poor kid - he's perpetually haunted by the ghosts who seek him out and try to talk to him. He's taken under the wing of Malcolm (Bruce Willis), a child psychiatrist who aims to help him confront and overcome his trauma. But in the course of trying to get at Cole's disturbance, Malcolm has to deal with some fundamental problems in his own life, such as his recent inability to communicate with his own wife.

Shamalyan is uncommonly restrained in his approach; he gives this material time to develop, and allows ample breathing room between appearances of standard (and pretty effective) horror-flick shock tactics. For the most part, it works. Unfortunately, I think he stretches the material a little too thin, to the point where suspense and anxiety melt away for lack of forward motion in the storyline.

Bruce Willis is quite good, really, in his key role, allowing his stonefaced impassivity to crack slightly, to good and understated effect. I often find myself rooting for Willis; I certainly admire the ambition of any Hollywood megastar who gravitates toward an A-list of directors that includes Robert Altman, Robert Benton, Luc Besson, Brian De Palma, Terry Gilliam, and Quentin Tarantino. He doesn't always make the right call (the Alan Rudolph adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, for instance, sounds like a losing proposition), and has been, on occasion, the victim of woefully poor casting (to wit: The Siege). But his performance here is just right, even with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (most famously, The Silence of the Lambs) shooting him from odd angles and lighting him to look a mite foppish. Amid all this strangeness, it's key to have a lead role anchored by a reassuringly familiar face.

The primary cast is rounded out by Olivia Williams (Rushmore), playing the undemanding part of Malcolm's wife, and Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding), quite good in the somewhat fleshier role of Cole's long-suffering mother, who runs the gamut of adoration and frustration in dealing with her son.

It's clear in both the performances and the supremely moody atmosphere (ratcheted up by solid cinematography, editing, and sound and set design) that this picture was in many ways a labor of love. The screenplay is achingly earnest, with few moments of humor to break up the baleful mood. That may be deliberate, but it becomes tiresome.

Eventually, those serious chills give way to a warm mawkishness so characteristic of Hollywood's take on death and the supernatural (see the admittedly moving but shamelessly manipulative City of Angels and What Dreams May Come). If the film works on you, you may forgive it those transgressions; if it doesn't (and if you figure out, as I did, exactly where it's going about a half hour in), the picture is likely to seem more like a labored exercise in pop psychology. But it's still an admirable effort -- at its best, it's one of the most elegant studio films of the year.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto
Starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment
USA, 1999

Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1

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