It’s wild how much I want M. Night Shyamalan to settle down with his efforts. Old is a terrific premise ripped straight out of The Twilight Zone (or, in this case, a graphic novel he received as a gift from his daughter), yet rather than just lean into the absurdity, a ton of other layers are tacked on. Armed with an overqualified cast, there’s plenty of opportunity to deliver something that’s not only memorable but sound from top to bottom. Instead, while maintaining plenty of oddball sensibilities, Old also has no real breathing room for the events taking place, some really awkward dialogue, and brutal choices that would have been better served by an R rating. The film is never dull, but it feels like it could be so much more.
The setup is simple, two parents (Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps) are on a tropical vacation with their two children, ages 6 and 11. After being taken to a secluded beach, along with a few other guests, there’s the horrible realization that everyone on this shore is aging rapidly, reducing a lifetime into a single day. Why is this happening? Why are they trapped here? These are just some of the questions these travelers must deal with.
I can’t think of another director who seems to need some kind of caveat to go with reviews for their latest film. Shyamalan made such a strong impression with his 1999 breakout hit, The Sixth Sense, the artistic success that was Unbreakable, and the alien invasion summer blockbuster Signs, that the subsequent turn toward lesser well-received films (and outright bombs) has turned him into a director everyone wants to be able to pin down as something. I’m not even sure what that might be, but it has something to do with replicating the malevolent tendencies of a child with toys, who happens to be well-informed on family dynamics, relationships, and class.
With that in mind, Old fits well with, of all Shyamalan’s films, The Happening. Now, mileage may vary on what’s appreciated (or not) about that bizarre film focused on people inexplicably killing themselves, but the similarities to Old become apparent early on. There’s a family dealing with a pending divorce, a series of supporting characters who can’t quite get a grip on Shyamalan’s dialogue but act their hearts out anyway, and a vicious threat of nature, with no apparent solution.
There’s a take no prisoners approach to all of this that I admire. The macabre sense of humor may undo the film entirely for some, but I’d be hard-pressed to think Old would benefit from being played entirely straight. Instead, Shyamalan’s penchant for balancing stakes and real emotion with dark humor makes the nastiness of how some of these characters are treated play better. It’s not enough that rapid aging means Rufus Sewell’s wonderfully smarmy (and quite racist) doctor character begins to mentally deteriorate. He also has finds himself obsessed with remembering a particular Marlon Brando movie.
Of course, the most outrageous story turn of them all is how this affects the children. Going from young kids to teenagers played by Alex Wolf, Thomasin McKenzie, and Eliza Scanlen, this horrific scenario not only hammers on the idea of parents seeing life literally pass before their eyes, but certain life activities are put into overdrive when newly formed adolescents start acting out. I have trouble with how this whole premise is explored, but I can’t say Shyamalan doesn’t want to have fun playing out this premise to crazy extremes.
Sadly, it’s not that the film’s premise can’t sustain its own logic. Instead, Shyamalan’s worst tendencies as a writer and director keep threatening to throw everything off the rails. As a writer, while there’s a kooky way to stage dialogue as if it’s coming from a 50s sci-fi tale, it never quite sounds right coming out of the mouths of modern actors. And whatever direction Shyamalan is giving the actors, there’s once again this odd habit of them appearing as if they’ve just arrived on earth and discovered human communication. As a result, there’s a pattern of stilted dialogue, complete with obvious proclamations and human actions that, even in an intense situation, I can’t see having any real basis beyond “the script told us to say and do this.”
This would be all well and good if the style was consistent and beneficial to the material. The frustrating part of this is how clearly one can see what works. Working again with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, plenty of inventive camerawork allows for menacing compositions. A few tricky shots find the camera swooping back and forth across the beach to deliver new information and shocking. It doesn’t all work. A reliance on delayed reveals feels like Shyamalan being too confident about the punch of what will occur, despite the audience already feeling a few steps ahead of what characters are looking at, despite the obscured angles presented.
Additionally, for a film about rapid aging, the makeup and visual effects are a moderate success. Subtle work allows the more prominent cast members to develop more and more wrinkles and other small touches over the film’s 108 minutes. More complicated areas tend to come off as wicked jokes on the characters, relying on less-than-great visual effects. The body horror works best when delivered just off-screen, though the need to push the rating higher than a PG-13 feels like a miss in favor of more commercial prospects. Still, as another moderately budgeted film from Shyamalan (which does mean he has plenty of control over his project), it’s a good thing he could get casting to work in his favor.
With the kids being played by different actors, some of the film’s best work comes from Wolff and McKenzie, who have to somehow balance being young children and young adults in the span of a few hours. One character even describes the burst of thoughts going through their mind as being able to see a lot of new colors. With solid character actors such as Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird only having so much to do, it’s a benefit to have the core family (Bernal and Krieps included) find a way to get around some of the more awkward moments, feeding more into what the premise wants to explore.
However, even with the concept in mind, it feels like Shyamalan’s aim is a bit too far out to sea to fully reach. Similar to some of his lesser films, the themes on display are presented more than explored. That wouldn’t be an issue if one or two core ideas were thrown into the mix as a way of enhancing the broader story. However, multiple characters all bring in different layers, and the film often feels like it’s in a huge rush to arrive at a few too many false endings. And then, I couldn’t help but think there’s too much tidiness to how this all wraps up by the time everything is finished.