I’m probably always going to root for M. Night Shyamalan. A lot of my affection is circumstantial — Shyamalan is what the Blank Check podcast calls a “starter kit director,” a filmmaker who has a clear style that even a young enthusiast can identify and analyze, and I was exactly the right age to get attached to his work during his peak at the turn of the century. Shyamalan has become something of a joke for his Twilight Zone twists and his self-serious attitude towards a body of work that’s at least 50% schlock. And yet, when a trailer boldly proclaims “FROM DIRECTOR M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN,” I always want to know about his latest wild pitch, and when I take a swing at it, I almost always have a good time. This was again the case with Old, his new supernatural thriller based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. Old is a truly weird movie in all the ways you’d expect from M. Night Shyamalan and I fully enjoyed it, though I’m not sure I was supposed to laugh as often as I did.
This is What Happens When You Don’t Wear Your Sunscreen
Guy (Gael García Bernal, Mozart in the Jungle) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) are a struggling married couple who have decided to take the family on one last vacation before separating. Their kids, 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton, Billions) and 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River, in his first significant role) are best friends who have supported each other emotionally through their parents’ rocky marriage. The family, along with a half-dozen fellow guests from their swanky resort, are dropped off at a secluded beach, where within hours they realize that something impossible has happened — all the children have aged significantly since they arrived. Soon, everyone is presenting signs of old age, and their chances of escaping the cove are getting narrower with each passing hour.
The beach becomes a puzzle that the guests must solve before they die, with new complications being revealed every step of the way. The kids are growing into adults — Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) and Alex Wolff (Pig) take over as Maddox and Trent for most of the runtime — and cope with their changing brain chemistry. The older guests are racking up debilitating ailments. The twists never stop, in fact nearly every character gets one of their own. Krieps and García Bernal are the most stable characters, tasked with grounding this insanity in some sort of emotional reality as they struggle with losing years of their children’s lives and begin to reevaluate their own relationship. Their characters are served well in moments of silent reflection, but they are occasionally saddled with bizarre dialogue that feels like it was written by an artificial intelligence.
The rest of the ensemble is filled out with characters who are mostly defined by their professions. Charles (Rufus Sewell, The Man in the High Castle) is a surgeon, and therefore self-important, emotionally detached, and flanked by a younger, looks-obsessed trophy wife (Abbey Lee, Lovecraft Country). We know that Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Avenue 5) is a therapist because her suggestion at every turn is “We should stop and talk about this!” Still, you get about what you need out of each member of the party, which is a specific point of view and a few humanizing moments.
You Expected Subtlety? This Movie is Called “Old”
It’s common to praise a screenplay by saying “every line of dialog is important; everything comes back around,” but it’s a lot less impressive when you can tell that’s being done in the moment. The first scene of Old begins with Maddox singing along to the radio, and her mother remarking that she can’t wait to hear what her singing voice will be like when she’s grown up. I can only guess how a scene like this plays if you begin with no foreknowledge of the film’s premise, but if the chuckles this line evoked in the theater is any indication, everyone who went to my opening night screening knew exactly what they were in for. The entire first twenty minutes of the movie are like this — a metric ton of foreshadowing and exposition. All wheat, no chaff.
Some of the exposition is delivered cleverly, some of it clumsily. In a positive example, Trent and a fellow precocious kid wander around the resort asking every guest for their name and their occupation, saying something like “Wow, that’s neat,” and then moving on to the next person, which is a totally believable thing for a pair of kids that age to do. Beats like these won genuine, plainly deliberate laughs at my screening. Even better, there’s a fair amount of information in these opening minutes that seems unimportant until it’s recalled again much later, which is the ideal way this kind of planting and payoff should work. On the other hand, when Guy and Prisca get into a fight, they vent their frustration at each other by cleanly explaining the nature of their conflict, how it relates into their occupations, and how they will tie into the themes of the film. It’s efficient, sure, but it’s also awkward, and it can give the audience the feeling that they’re being talked down to. My fellow moviegoers laughed at these lines, too, but Shyamalan did not seem to be fishing for it.
Thankfully, Shyamalan is much better at showing than he is at telling, and the story becomes much more visual once the characters leave the Exposition Hotel. Once the plot kicks in, he gets to play with the careful withholding of information, building suspense or briefly misleading the eye. My single favorite shot in Old comes after the vacationers have arrived at the beach, but before it’s clear anything’s wrong. Maddox and another child, Kara, are running along the shoreline, laughing and playing, while Trent is standing curiously still. The camera follows the girls, and Trent comes in and out of frame at various levels of focus. We know what kind of movie this is, so tension builds quickly — what’s the matter with Trent? A moment later, we learn that nothing is wrong with Trent, that the kids are just playing freeze tag. Trent gets tagged in, Kara gets tagged out, and this time the camera lingers on her, smiling, deliberately frozen in a moment of childish fun she’s about to outgrow. Mwah! Cinema.
On multiple occasions, Shyamalan gets great mileage out of turning the camera away from the action. At about the midpoint, it becomes necessary to perform an ad hoc surgery on one of the beachgoers, complicated by the patient’s wounds closing almost instantly due to time compression. We see the incision, watch for a moment as multiple sets of hands attempt to hold the wound open to give the surgeon time to operate, and then we turn away, looking up from the angle of the patient’s body and very, very slowly pushing in so that the panicked faces around them surrender space in the frame to the gray-blue sky above. Sound design does the rest of the work. I gritted my teeth through this entire scene.
As effective as these moments are, there are others during which I was genuinely unsure whether I was meant to tense up or laugh. Old is sometimes genuinely funny, with a few sharp comic relief bullseyes delivered by Aaron Pierre (The Underground Railroad) as a musician with the stage name Mid-Sized Sedan. But even as truly horrible, depressing things start happening to our characters, bizarre funny moments persist through tense musical cues and off-balance camera moves. The goofiness of the premise is only ever temporarily subdued, never fully overcome, and I often found myself unsure whether or not I was on the same wavelength with the storytellers. I know I had permission to laugh a minute ago, but what about now? Is now okay? Even through this uncertainty, though, I have to admit that I never stopped being engaged with the film.
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Don’t Fear the Reaper
As tempered as my expectations were for Old, it did disappoint me in one respect: It never scared me. A horror movie in which the monster is time itself, the real-life foe that we all fear to some extent, seems like a no-brainer. But Old pivots away from horror and instead commits to being science fiction, establishing a pseudoscientific explanation for the characters’ plight and a clear set of rules around it. For example, nurse Jarin (Ken Leung, who has some history with timey-wimey beaches) comes up with an explanation as to why the characters’ hair and nails don’t grow, why they pass out when they attempt to leave the cove, etc. In clinging to soft sci-fi plausibility, Old makes the supernatural threat knowable, and thus, much less scary.
Old exploits its rigid time-bending conceit in a few interesting ways and answers a lot of the practical questions you might ask over the course of watching. What happens to someone if they’re born on the beach? How does growing up work if your brain is maturing but you’re not accumulating experiences at a commensurate rate? What happens if you break a bone? There’s a side helping of body horror, but only one scene that’s all that gruesome. (Like most of Shyamalan’s films, Old is rated PG-13 in the US.) Most of the cast is allowed to age pretty gracefully and realistically, eschewing exaggerated makeup effects for all but one character. This creative decision creates the impression that Shyamalan isn’t actually that afraid of getting old, and may not want you to be, either.
The antagonist of Old isn’t so much the damage time does to your body, but time lost with the people you love. The film’s message is clear — value the relationships you have while you have them, because they will eventually end. It’s one of the most common themes in fiction and Old certainly won’t be going down in history as the finest example of this, or anything else. It’s evidence neither that M. Night Shyamalan has his fastball back, nor that he’s lost it for good. Old is just a weird, reasonably good time at the movies, 108 minutes during which you’ll age exactly 108 minutes and, most likely, not mind that you did.