It must be difficult to cast films where the central character is a young child, particularly when the role is so emotionally demanding. In the case of Avy Kaufman, she either got very lucky or made an inspired choice by casting Haley Joel Osment. He plays Cole Sear and owns the screen for the large majority of the show.
Cole is tormented but it isn’t until about half way through the film that we find out it is because he can see the dead. And to an eight-year-old, being visited by disturbed, maimed and angry spirits is horrifying. It’s made all the worse because he has no one he can turn to for support. He is the only one who can see ghosts and his behavior has made him a freak in the eyes of his classmates and teacher.
The film starts with a frightening glimpse of what Cole may become. Renowned child psychologist Dr Malcolm Crowe has a grim reunion with a former patient. An unstable child of yesteryear, Vincent Gray, has grown into a fractured and psychotic adult who wants nothing more than to remind Malcolm of his failure, before killing himself. The reminder takes the form of a bullet in his doctor’s stomach.
We catch up with the good doctor, played superbly by Bruce Willis, about a year later. (This role is not unlike that Willis had in The Color of Night, although in this case his character is a gentler soul.) Malcolm is reviewing his case notes on young Cole, prior to their introduction. We learn that Cole’s profile is identical to Vincent’s, Malcolm’s patient from years earlier. The big clue for the audience is that Vincent and Cole both have a small spot of blond hair within their otherwise dark locks.
The film builds slowly, which is not to imply that it is dull. In fact a better description would be “mesmerizing”. We are forced to care for young Cole as a clearer picture is painted of his day to day existence. No night is safe for him, no place is free of fear and no one understands his torment. In a desperate bid for sanctuary he turns to the church and the questionable protection of religious symbols, which he shamelessly steals, building a chapel in his bedroom.
His local church is where Cole and Malcolm first meet, after a strange solo dash down the street. And so begins the careful building of a relationship, a friendship, and eventually a salvation for both of them. For Cole is not the only one with problems. Dr Crowe is also a changed man. The dramatic shooting and suicide of his patient has shaken Malcolm’s faith. He is no longer a satisfied purveyor of mental balms but a frightened, uncertain victim. His wife Anna, seems unable or unwilling to deal with the situation; and what had been a close and loving relationship is now teetering on the brink of collapse.
It is not long before we realize that Malcolm is Cole’s only hope for sanity and conversely, Cole may be Malcolm’s last chance for redemption. With a foundation like that, I was looking forward to the meat of the story. Cole does eventually come to trust in Malcolm but we already know that trust is not a cure in itself. Vincent was a potent lesson of this. So when Cole reveals his secret, it is simply a gauntlet thrown down to Malcolm. Cole claims to be able to see the dead. A classic case of schizophrenic delusions but unusual in one so young.
Up to this point in the film we have seen nothing of a supernatural nature, only the sad effects that Cole exhibits. And so Malcolm’s diagnosis is understandable. Once the secret is out however, our viewpoint is released and we are able to see as Cole does. His world is populated by terrifying beings that seem ignorant of their own maimed appearance and, in Cole’s words, only see what they choose to see and have no understanding of their own death. His midnight callers create some of the scariest cinema I’ve seen in years. Not because of cutting edge special effects but because we share Cole’s helplessness in the face of his “gift”. Even his homemade church offers no protection and he is driven past despair.
I can’t go any further into the story without running the risk of spoiling the final plot twist. Instead, I will simply beg you to see this gripping, intelligent and deeply emotional movie. Let’s put some more money in the pockets of director M. Night Shyamalan in the hopes that he will continue to make movies of this caliber.