M Night Shyamalan's latest thriller is frequently unnerving, insidious and moving — and also a little too neat.
July 22, 2021
Ageing in a privilege. It's certainly better than the alternative. But what if life's physical ravages were condensed and accelerated? What if you were a six-year-old one moment, a teenager a few hours later and sporting middle-aged wrinkles the next morning? That's the premise of Old, which boasts a sci-fi setup that could've come straight from The Twilight Zone, a chaotic midsection reminiscent of Mother!'s immersive horrors, and a setting and character dynamics that nod to Lost. It slides in alongside recently unearthed George A Romero thriller The Amusement Park as well and, with M Night Shyamalan behind the lens, indulges the writer/director's love of high-concept plots with big twists. No one sees dead people and plants aren't the culprits — thankfully, in the latter case — however, surprise revelations remain part of this game. That said, unlike earlier in his career, when the filmmaker might've made the rapid passage of time the final big shock, Shyamalan isn't just about jolts and amazement here.
Old has another sizeable reveal, naturally. Shyamalan is still the director behind The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, The Visit, Split, Glass and more, and he likes his bag of tricks. This time, though, he wants to play with and probe his scenario rather than primarily tease his audience and get them puzzling. He wants viewers to experience the minutiae rather than wait for the ultimate unmasking (yes, with his fondness for twists, he'd probably make a great version of Scooby Doo). The notion that ageing brings pain and loss — physical, mental and emotional alike — isn't new, of course. Nor is the reality that death awaits us all, or that we rarely make the most of our seconds, minutes and hours (and days, weeks, months and years). But Shyamalan embraces these immutable facts to explore how humanity responds to getting older and the knowledge that we'll die, and how our worldview is shaped as a result — or, when we're all ignoring our mortality as we typically soldier on day after day, how ordinarily it isn't.
Holidaying from Philadelphia — Shyamalan's hometown and usual on-screen setting — Guy (Gael García Bernal, Ema) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) have a different ending on their minds as they settle into a luxe resort on a remote tropical island. Their marriage is crumbling, but they're giving their six-year-old son Trent (Nolan River, Adverse) and 11-year-old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton, Billions) one last happy vacation before their domestic bliss subsides. The kids have conflicting ideas about how to spend their getaway, but the hotel's manager (Gustaf Hammarsten, Kursk) has a suggestion. He tells the family about a secret beach, and stresses that he doesn't just tip off any old customers about its existence. The fact that they're escorted by mini-bus (driven by Shyamalan, in one of his regular cameos) alongside a few other resort guests undercuts that clandestine claim, but everyone soon has far worse to deal with.
With arrogant surgeon Charles (Rufus Sewell, The Father), his younger wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee, Lovecraft Country), their daughter Kara (debutant Kylie Begley) and his elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant, The Affair) — and with famous rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre, The Underground Railroad), and couple Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird, The Personal History of David Copperfield) and Jarin (Ken Leung, a Lost alum) as well — Guy, Prisca, Trent and Maddox quickly discover that time ticks by at a much speedier pace on this supposedly idyllic patch of sand. Also, no matter how they try, they can't manage to leave its oceanside expanse. The bulk of Old charts their reactions, especially as seconds equate to hours and the effects show almost immediately. Not only do the kids grow up fast (which is where Jojo Rabbit's Thomasin McKenzie, Jumanji: The Next Level's Alex Wolff and Babyteeth's Eliza Scanlen come in), but all of the beachgoers' health ailments are expedited, too. Diving in wholeheartedly, Shyamalan mixes stints of body horror with the film's existential woes, all while deploying Mike Gioulakis' (Us) constantly careening cinematography to convey the confusion sweeping through his exasperated characters.
When it works — when it's plunging into the mania, discomfort and disorientation caused by time's sped-up slip — Old unfurls with a sense of fluidity, frenzy and thoughtfulness. It contemplates loss on multiple levels, including of health, childhood and life, and it finds vivid images to express the chaos and dismay that springs. Indeed, its depictions of advancing cancer, osteoporosis, loss of sight and loss of hearing are bold and effective. Shyamalan also uses his scenic backdrop cannily, giving his stranded figures and everyone watching a reminder that the planet's beauty will linger unaffected even as a lifetime of dramas play out (climate change isn't part of this scenario, obviously). And, his musings and the imagery they inspire all strike an emotional chord. His smart casting helps at every step as well, led by not just Bernal and Krieps, but McKenzie, Wolff and Scanlen. It's confronting to watch people realise their future is now gone, their squabbles unimportant and their regrets many, just as it's poignant to see young adults who were kids mere minutes ago grapple with coming of age on a rapid timeframe.
Still, Shyamalan's beachy nightmare also has its struggles. Adapting his narrative from Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters' graphic novel Sandcastle, he pens dialogue that's descriptive, exposition-heavy and often clunky. His treatment of mental illness as a villainous force is immensely troublesome. As is evident from the get-go, when cocktails are foisted too enthusiastically upon new resort arrivals and a young boy, Idlib (Kailen Jude, Grey's Anatomy), befriends Trent but seems wearied by everything around him, Shyamalan also can't completely resist the urge to force-feed blatantly apparent details. The film's needlessly conspicuous touches don't wash away its thrills, but they do make this a movie that's never as potent as it could be. When it's bonkers, insidious and moving all at once, Old grabs you as firmly as time grabs us all. When it just can't help being too neat, explanation-wise, it treads water rather than seizes the moment.