2020s

Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Old’

Old Review

Perhaps the foremost tragedy of humanity is that we’re all made to die. The very act of living ensures that the human body will become corrupted by not only disease but simple wear and tear. The one mitigating element to this fate is that the destruction of the body happens so slowly as to be mostly imperceptible, our minds having enough time to come to terms with our bodies. The notion that this change could be unnaturally accelerated has long been a staple of horror and science fiction, appearing as an element in some movies but most frequently seen in episodes of television in shows like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, The X-Files, Farscape and others. Most of these episodes focus on the psychological and social aspects of being unnaturally aged, with their horror elements having to do with the characters’ knowledge that their lives are perhaps ending much sooner than they should. M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, Old, certainly touches on these psychological themes, but his movie is far more focused on the body itself, turning the rapid aging trope toward the body horror that was always implicit within it. It’s this focus that makes Old a consistently fascinating ride, even when Shyamalan’s weaknesses threaten to derail it. 

Based on a graphic novel entitled Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, Old takes the source material’s disturbing premise and runs with it in a way only Shyamalan can. The film follows an ensemble of characters who converge at a tropical location for a vacation at a swanky resort that seems too good to be true. Sure enough, it is — the hotel’s staff encourages certain guests to visit a nearby private beach where they’ll be provided with copious amounts of food and the promise that should they wish to leave at any time they may call the hotel shuttle. Once on the beach, however, a typical family unit — father Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), mother Prisca (Vicky Krieps), daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and son Trent (Nolan River) — discover that they and their fellow vacationers (including Rufus Sewell as a middle-aged doctor, Abbey Lee as his younger wife, Kathleen Chalfant as his mother, Kyle Bailey as his daughter, Aaron Pierre as a rapper from Philadelphia and Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird as a couple) cannot leave the beach due to blacking out when attempted. To their mounting confusion and horror, their cells begin to rapidly age, a change most evident in their children as the six-year-old Trent and Kara and the 11-year-old Maddox become teens in just over an hour. 

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Thomasin McKenzie as Maddox and Alex Wolff as Trent in Old Movie Film

Where the graphic novel is brutally simple and single-minded in its plot, Shyamalan plants numerous suggestions and ideas in Old early on, complicating things to an increasingly paranoid degree. It’s the filmmaker leaning into his own brand, knowing that his very name has become synonymous with twist endings, and this gives him license to raise suspicion and drop red herrings with abandon. Shyamalan takes Old’s classic horror setup — a group of characters trapped in a single location being picked off one by one by a killer in their midst — and heightens it as much as possible, having fun with the “killer” being time and old age itself. He stages a number of wicked setpieces that stretch scientific credulity even as they take the premise at face value, including one where the now-teen Kara (Eliza Scanlen) becomes pregnant and carries the baby to term in a matter of minutes. The body horror of the film is seen in more insidiously subtle events as well, such as characters finding their mental faculties dwindling, their hearing disappearing or eyesight blurring. That’s all in addition to the survivalist aspect, as the group scrambles to figure out not just what’s happening to them but also how to possibly leave the beach, exploring dangerous methods of escape from climbing the huge rock face surrounding the cove to swimming out into the ocean and around it. 

Shyamalan accompanies the paranoia and increasing stakes of the film by switching up his usual shooting style. The director typically enjoys creating painterly, composed frames, giving his films a look that’s as gorgeous as it is staid. While a portion of Old continues this penchant for beautiful cinematography (being mostly shot in the Dominican Republic), Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis keep the camera constantly moving. The film’s photography ranges from handheld shots to sweeping dolly shots as if the audience is trapped on the beach along with the characters, constantly freaking out and searching for an escape route. Every other aspect of the film conforms to that aesthetic as well, with the sound design keeping the crashing waves of the ocean ever present, resulting in the actors delivering all their dialogue at an increased pitch as well as a frantic pace. 

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Old Movie Film

That pitch and pace unfortunately does the ensemble cast no favors, all of them struggling mightily to deliver some of the clunkiest dialogue of Shyamalan’s career. The filmmaker has never been subtle or naturalistic in his dialogue (this is the guy who wrote the on-the-nose phrase “I see dead people,” after all), yet the character work in his best films can be beautifully layered and nuanced. Old has no time for that, the film riding along with the characters as they struggle to solve their dilemma and survive. Yet Shyamalan forces them to make time, or rather inserts depth and backstory in the most awkward way possible — at one point, a character gathers the survivors in a circle explaining that they should all share intimate secrets of their lives so that they’ll trust each other, an attempt that only works for a moment before some new crisis rears its head. It’s possible Shyamalan is aiming to satirize the trend of heavily character-based horror survival stories (the TV series Lost leaps immediately to mind), yet he’ll stage a scene like that one minute and then stop everything for Bernal’s Guy to leadenly explain his job or have someone overexplain their emotional state the next. There’s no question that this cast is more than qualified, and it’s a testament to them that the film’s stakes remain high, despite every one of them being left behind by the screenplay’s unevenness. 

As expected, there is a rug-pulling reveal in the third act of Old, and it’s one that continues the Shyamalan tradition of twists being tied to theme and concept rather than mere “gotcha” trickery. As has been typical of Shyamalan’s recent work, this twist is not saved for the very end of the film as in the case of his star-making features The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000), the movie instead continuing so far past the reveal that it starts to feel like one denouement too many. While this awkward structure sullies the Twilight Zone vibe of the movie a bit, it reinforces the fact that Shyamalan remains a filmmaker who follows nothing but his own muse, an impressive rarity in genre movies these days. While Old never quite fully connects emotionally, the themes inherent in the story help lend the movie the depth it doesn’t get from the performances. In addition to a snappy horror sci-fi tale, Shyamalan has made a movie about the struggle to accept the ravages of time and aging, not just for himself but for his children, too — in a sly touch, the song Maddox is obsessed with is one performed by Shyamalan’s daughter, Saleka. The grand irony of Old is that these characters suffer by growing old in a location that otherwise looks like paradise — maybe Shyamalan is hinting that we’re all running around frantically trying to postpone or escape our fate, when perhaps we should surrender and simply enjoy the scenery instead.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.

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