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THE SIXTH SENSE – James Newton Howard

sixthsenseOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Every year has its “twist” movie – from The Usual Suspects in 1994 and Primal Fear in 1995 to Fallen and Wild Things last year. 1999’s sting in the tale comes from The Sixth Sense, a superior thriller starring Bruce Willis as troubled child psychologist Malcolm Crowe who, after a failed consultation drives a former patient over the brink, sees a chance of personal and professional redemption in the case of 10-year old Cole Sear. You see, Cole has a dark and terrible secret which even his mother (Toni Collette) doesn’t know about. In his own words, he “sees dead people, walking around like regular people”, and Malcolm believes that if he can help this terribly frightened young child, it will also rescue his waning relationship with his estranged wife Anna (Olivia Williams).

To reveal more of the plot would be unfair, suffice to say that the ending of The Sixth Sense will leave you reeling, not only for its audacity but also because the revelation will cause viewers to completely re-evaluate the entire movie from a new perspective. Kudos should go to Willis for his restrained, thoughtful lead role, and to writer/director M. Night Shyamalan for his excellent narrative and visual style. The cream, however, is reserved for young Haley Joel Osment who, as the accursed Cole, gives a performance of great depth and character, conveying deep emotions of fear and confusion with a genuine conviction that belies his tender years.

Accompanying and accentuating the scenes of bona fide terror is James Newton Howard’s sparse original score, which comes across wonderfully on-screen but is just a little disappointing when heard as a standalone record. Howard has had a good 1999 overall – with the hit movies Runaway Bride, Mumford and Stir of Echoes already under his belt, and the epic drama Snow Falling on Cedars coming soon, it seems that JNH is re-integrating himself into the Hollywood system after a 1998 which only saw him writing for the much-maligned The Postman and A Perfect Murder.

Solo piano, a female choir and a bed of soft, lazy strings feature in many tracks, imparting a mood of quiet reflection which is often tinged with sadness and a subtle an ecclesiastical overtone, as if Howard intended to illustrate the quasi-religious aspects inherent in the story. The three opening tracks, ‘Run to the Church’, ‘De Profundis’ and ‘Mind Reading’, freely adopt this style, occasionally adding an instrumental texture (gentle brasses in the first, loud droning synths in the second, hesitantly warm flutes in the third) to lend a little color to the cues.

The hush is punctuated by moments of extreme dissonance, mainly underscoring Cole’s horrifying encounters with the dead. Jarring brass stabs, biting bass slaps and intense, ascending ground strings typify cues such as ‘Suicide Ghost’, ‘Hanging Ghosts’ and ‘Kyra’s Ghost’, but it would not surprise me in the slightest if, by half time, some listeners had given up on the score as nothing more than unremarkable mood music. Things change for the better in ‘Tape of Vincent’ a superb cue which, through gradual progressions and deliberate changes of pace and volume, builds towards a superlative climax telling of Willis’s incredible revelation. The concluding cue ‘Malcolm Is Dead’ (which, unfortunately, gives away the film’s ending) takes all the various elements and wraps them up into a terrific finale of choral and orchestral power.

As a score, I actually like The Sixth Sense quite a lot, but it is not difficult to imagine that film score fans with a low threshold for dissonance may find it difficult to swallow. Having a score make you jump and give you spine chills while you are watching the film is one thing – having it happen to you in the comfort of your own home is something entirely different. Ultimately, your enjoyment of Howard’s score will rest firmly with your personal taste. For me, The Sixth Sense represents a masterful exercise in musical tension building and musical tension release and, although it lacks a memorable theme, nevertheless serves to provide an aural reminder of a great film.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Run to the Church (1:20)
  • De Profundis (2:24)
  • Mind Reading (2:43)
  • Photographs (0:53)
  • Suicide Ghost (1:33)
  • Malcolm’s Story/Cole’s Secret (4:03)
  • Hanging Ghosts (2:31)
  • Tape of Vincent (3:27)
  • Help the Ghosts/Kyra’s Ghost (4:28)
  • Kyra’s Tape (2:00)
  • Malcolm Is Dead (4:47)

Running Time: 30 minutes 21 seconds

Varése Sarabande VSD-6061 (1999)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian, Brad Dechter, Robert Elhai and James Newton Howard. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Thomas Drescher. Mastered by Pat Sullivan. Album produced by James Newton Howard.

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