13/09/21 23:26 Filed in: 2021
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal
Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
Director M. Night Shyamalan is back with a new thriller, Old.
The story opens with a vacationing family driving through a tropical paradise. After checking into an opulent seaside resort, the hospitality manager invites the family to visit a private beach. They’re joined by two other families; a mysterious man, who lingers like a statue near the rocky cliffs, was already on the beach before they arrived.
The first clue that everything isn’t okay comes when one of vacationers finds a dead body. Then, the adults are shocked when they discover their kids are growing older by the hour. Every attempt to leave the beach is met with failure or death and, judging from how fast their children are growing, the adults estimate they’ll die of old age within twenty-four hours.
A mystery coupled with a ticking time bomb plot device is usually an effective combination, and so it is here. But, before we’ve gone too far down the slot canyon of analysis, I want to make an admission that might make some scoff. I admire Shyamalan.
His early successes, The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002), put Shyamalan on the fast track to becoming the next Alfred Hitchcock. Praise turned to ridicule with the release of a middling rash of films, including The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2006), and The Happening (2008). Ironically, Shyamalan created his own monster when (ever smarter) audiences came to expect, and quickly deduce, his patented twist endings.
Shyamalan’s name became synonymous with box office flops and for a season it looked like his career was finished. But to his credit, Shyamalan took the criticism and failure in stride and kept trying (hence my admiration). In recent years, he’s delivered several modest successes, including the thought-provoking psychological thrillers Split (2016) and Glass (2019).
Shyamalan, who also wrote the story (adapted from the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Levy) and appears in a cameo role, delivers some skillful and inventive directing in Old. The unsettling vertigo effect inside the canyon is highly effective and the shots of kids freezing in place when playing a game of tag are downright creepy. Thankfully, he takes a minimalist approach when showing gory or graphic action; many of these incidents take place off-screen, with a few notable exceptions.
With the assistance of his crew, Shyamalan makes the plight of his aging characters an immersive experience for the audience. A blurry filter is used to depict a man’s failing vision. A woman covers her right ear and everything in the theater goes silent…a dramatic way to reveal that she’s deaf in her left ear. Even in the CG era, these old-school tricks still work like a charm.
As brilliant as his direction is, Shyamalan’s dialog is wanting. In the first few minutes of the film, the themes of aging and time are delivered with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Such contrived lines include: “I can’t wait to hear it when you’re older,” “You’re too young,” “Don’t wish away this moment” and “Sit up, you don’t want to be hunched when you grow up.” These, and many other, examples reinforce my opinion that Shyamalan should’ve hired a professional scribe to co-write or, at the very least, polish his script.
Soliciting help from an established screenwriter would’ve benefited the narrative, too. The story’s structure is fairly taut until the very end, when the plot takes a sharp left turn and the audience goes “Ahh!” Shyamalan should’ve wrapped things up right there.
Instead, he takes extra time to explain what the audience has already figured out. Shyamalan ties up every plot thread, but he should’ve left a few details untidy…to preserve the mystery and allow the audience to fill in some of the gaps. Aside from a few obvious nitpicks (wouldn’t nails, hair/beards grow quicker in an environment with rapidly advancing time; wouldn’t the aging adults have more gray hair and wrinkles; and why don’t the older and younger actors playing the same person look anything alike?), the movie’s ending is its only significant misstep.
Though lacking in star power, the movie features solid performances from an ensemble of established adult actors (Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung and Embeth Davidtz) as well as some fresh faces (Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie and Alexa Swinton). The multi-generational (and racially diverse) cast not only serves the story, it gives each member of the audience someone to identify with, which is also true of the movie’s themes (aging and relationship issues will resonate with adults, while teen romance and thriller sequences will appeal to younger audience members).
The film’s tropical vistas, shot in the Dominican Republic, are absolutely gorgeous. It could be argued that the beach, as the central locus of action, is the “main character” of the movie. Perhaps this is why Shyamalan didn’t hire superstars…he didn’t want his location to be upstaged.
Old is one of Shyamalan’s only films not to be set in his hometown, Philadelphia (however, the story’s main family says they’re from Philly). Though an unintended analogy at the time of filming, Shyamalan has keenly noted that this story, which involves characters trapped on a beach, is reminiscent of the way many people have felt stuck during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The movie The Missouri Breaks (1976), starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, is mentioned twice by Sewell’s character. Since the plot of that film doesn’t resemble the story in Old in any way, it’s a curious and esoteric reference.
Playing an overconfident swimmer in Old, Leung is perhaps best known for his role in another tropical island mystery, TVs Lost. One young boy says he collects conch shells. This may be a reference to Lord of the Flies, yet another island survival tale/morality play.
In addition to its main theme concerning the fear of growing old and dying, there are several ancillary themes in the movie, including anxieties surrounding chronic illness and loss (of physical abilities, mental health, memory, cherished people and pets).
The movie also has a lot to say about time and how we choose to use it. With only thirteen hours to live, two characters decide to make a sandcastle on the beach. Some would view this as a waste of precious time. Others might see it as a shared experience providing an enjoyable distraction from the crushing reality of their impending doom. The scene posits an important message: no matter how bad things get, always take some time to have fun and enjoy the moment.
Old is a thriller wrapped in a mystery and tied together with a universal theme: the fear of growing old and dying. It’s man vs. nature stuck on fast-forward.
Old isn’t top-shelf Shyamalan, nor does it need to be. That seems to be one of the main ingredients in Shyamalan’s resurgence; he isn’t trying to make the next Signs. He’s just trying to make films with an intriguing premise and relatable characters rather than a thrill-fest with a trick ending. It’s a formula that seems to be working.
In the end, this isn’t a great film, but it’s a well-constructed mystery with a few good scares and some food for thought you can snack on after you’ve left the theater.
Parting tip: When someone invites you to a private beach, go snorkeling.
Rating: 3 out of 4