You’ve got to hand it to M. Night Shyamalan – he’s trying, damn it! The movie industry is approaching a precipice. In fact, it might have already gone over the cliff. When Hollywood – I use the term loosely, but what I’m primarily talking about here are major studios making wide-release films – spits out something new now, it has to be an event! Everything is a spectacle. Except it isn’t.
There’s no life; no verve; no ingenuity. It’s all just product. As film critic A.O. Scott recently wrote, “movies are becoming less special and more specialized. The big I.P.–driven studio movies grow less interesting as a matter of policy, while the smaller releases cater to the interests of splintered, self-selected communities of taste.”
In short, shit is dire, gang. And there are very few big mainstream filmmakers who are willing, and able, to step out of the ever-widening suck zone. M. Night Shyamalan is one of those filmmakers, and thank heavens for that. With his latest film Old, Shyamalan attempts to use his clout to craft something weird and wild – and different. The end result is nothing short of a hot mess. But these days, I’ll take a hot mess over endless I.P.–driven claptrap.
Shyamalan’s career has been a bit of a rollercoaster. The Sixth Sense, technically his third film but the first of his efforts people actually noticed, launched him into superstardom. Magazine covers hailed him as “The Next Spielberg!” He was a whiz kid; an Indian-born artist from the streets of Philadelphia. His blend of Ordinary People-like drama with ghost story twists won rave reviews, a big box office haul, and Academy Award nominations. But perhaps this was more of a blessing than a curse. Because, at least as far as moviegoers are concerned, Shyamalan has been chasing that Sixth Sense high ever since.
To be sure, many of his movies after The Sixth Sense were big hits. But no subsequent film has garnered the respect and reverence as his 1999 introduction to the masses. The director’s career really took a tumble in the early 2010s, and it truly seemed as if his days of any sort of respect were coming to an end. But Shyamalan defied the odds and fought his way back. After several loathed efforts had more or less landed him in director’s jail, Shyamalan borrowed $5 million against his own home to make The Visit, a found-footage fright flick about crazy old people. It was a huge hit and signaled something of a return for the filmmaker. That return was underlined with his next effort, the effective thriller Split.
While The Visit and Split may not be among Shyamalan’s best works, they’re both solid films. The same can’t be said for the Split follow-up Glass, a dour misfire that gave fans the Unbreakable sequel they didn’t want. I’ve remained in Shyamalan’s corner through good and bad, but even I was shattered by Glass, a film that almost made me want to throw in the towel on Shyamalan’s career.
Now, the director is back again with Old, and the results are…surprising. This is not a depressing setback like Glass. But it’s not really good, either. And yet, there’s a part of me – call it the part that has been numbed by Hollywood’s recent and constant bland efforts – that can’t help but enjoy the hokum that Shyamalan is peddling here. Old is a manic movie; an experience where all of the actors appear to be hopped up on caffeine pills. People don’t so much deliver their lines as rush them out, as if they were expelling all the oxygen from their lungs in quick, gasping blasts. Perhaps that’s all part of the plan – this is a movie about people running out of time, after all. But that doesn’t mean it works.
In fact, I don’t know if anything really works here. It’s all so hectic and odd, and Shyamalan underscores that oddness with increasingly bizarre camera angles. The filmmaker gets downright experimental, at least for him – Old has him prone to setting the camera up in odd spots where most of the action is just slightly out of frame. There’s a scene near the end where two characters deliver what I assume is meant to be a big, rousing, game-changing speech. But Shyamalan keeps the camera far away, hidden almost. Like we’re only spying on a big climactic moment rather than actually experiencing it fully. I watched all of this incredulously and came away befuddled. But the more I sat with Old, the more I appreciated its goofball energy. And most of all, I can’t help but salute Shyamalan for being one of the few big modern filmmakers willing to take out-of-left-field risks.
As Old begins, a family – father Guy (Gael García Bernal), mother Prisca (Vicky Krieps), and young children Trent (Nolan River) and Maddox (Alexa Swinton) – are on vacation, having just arrived at a luxury beach resort somewhere tropical (Shyamalan left his traditional Philadelphia setting behind to film Old in the Dominican Republic). While the kids are ready to have fun in the sun, things seem particularly tense between Guy and Prisca.
Soon after the family arrives and gets settled in, they learn of a private beach and set out to spend the day catching some rays and taking a dip or two. They quickly find that the beach isn’t that private, because several other guests from the resort have come along, too. There’s a somewhat shifty doctor, played by Rufus Sewell, his younger wife (Abbey Lee), and their small child Kara (Mikaya Fisher). The doctor’s elderly mother (Kathleen Chalfant) is along for the trip as well. Then there’s another couple, played by Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird. And, perhaps most curious of all, there’s a famous rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (yes, really), played by Aaron Pierre. Mr. Sedan is already on the beach when these other characters show up, sitting silently by himself with a bloody nose. Everyone steers clear of him – at first.
Subtlety is not the name of the game here, and Shyamalan lays things on thick before the creepy stuff starts happening. “You’re too young to do that!” the children are told by their parents again and again. “You have a beautiful voice!” Prisca tells Maddox while the young girl is singing. “I can’t wait to hear it when you’re older!” (Note: who the hell would ever say something like that? Or even have that thought? Is that a thought parents actually have? “Oh, my child is singing, I can’t wait to hear their voice when they’re even older!”)
The peace and tranquility don’t last very long. The beachgoers first discover a dead body, and then – even more alarming – they discover they can’t leave. Any attempt to flee the beach causes them to suffer extreme headaches, blackout, and wake up back where they started. If all of that weren’t distressing enough, everyone soon realizes that time is working differently on the beach. Through a series of convoluted exposition dumps, the characters figure out that every 30 minutes they spend on the beach is equal to one full year of their lives. Which means everyone starts aging rapidly. It’s particularly noticeable in the kids, who sprout into much older actors – Alex Wolff becomes Trent, Thomasin McKenzie is now Maddox, and Eliza Scanlen – who is severely underused here – is suddenly Kara, the doctor’s daughter.
The more the characters rapidly age, the closer to death they get, and Shyamalan tries to create poignant moments where people talk about how time is fleeting and how every second is precious, so we must cherish it all. Or some such thing. It’s never adequately articulated, and that’s a shame because Shyamalan has crafted emotional narratives in the past that really resonate. The cosmic loneliness of both David Dunn and Elijah Price in Unbreakable is palpable and heartbreaking. And the melancholy grief that prevails over the severely underrated The Village is remarkable. But you’ll find nothing like that here. You’ll just find people running around in bathing suits, screaming their heads off.
I’m sure by now you’ll notice I haven’t said anything very positive about Old. And yet…I find myself wanting to recommend it. I keep coming back to the sad state of modern movies, where everything is a franchise, or a superhero movie, or a superhero movie franchise. Where everything is focus-group-tested out the wazoo, and nothing feels fresh or particularly exciting. For all of Old‘s flaws – and those flaws are bounteous! – it’s a film with energy; a film with life. Shyamalan doesn’t appear to have a firm grasp on this material, but again, he’s trying! He’s trying to give us something different. And these days, that’s the sort of thing we should all be longing for.
Besides, Old has its solidly crafted moments. There’s some particularly nasty body horror here – not only do people age quickly, but they also heal quickly, too. Which means that when one character breaks several bones in their arms and legs, those bones rapidly set at wrong angles, turning this poor soul into a crawling, clacking crab-like monstrosity.
The Shyamalan film Old most reminded me of was The Happening, the director’s gloriously clunky, weirdly violent thriller about killer trees. Critics lambasted the film and Shyamalan, smelling blood in the water, tried to get in on the fun by claiming The Happening was an intentional B-movie. “I made it bad on purpose!” he more or less said. Whether or not that’s true is Shyamalan’s business. But for all its problems, I can’t help but love the gonzo nature of The Happening. And I found myself similarly inclined towards Old. Shyamalan has made far, far better movies than this, and I hope he will again. For now, though, I’ll take my joy wherever I can find it.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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