‘Old’ Review: M. Night Shyamalan Has Nothing Left To Prove
It’s a little choppy and episodic, and could really have used an R-rating, but M. Night Shyamalan’s latest is a relentless and mean little chiller.
The biggest twist in M. Night Shyamalan’s Old is that its protagonists spend much of the time hoping for a patented Shyamalan switcheroo. Depending on your emotional investment, you might find yourself hoping for one too. To be fair, maybe half of Shyamalan’s 14 flicks (counting his pre-Sixth Sense output) have contained what I’d argue are climactic plot turns or even epilogue reveals. While there are revelations and explanations in this 108-minute chiller, the terror in this lean-and-mean supernatural tragedy is classically Stephen King. It presents a horrifying premise and offers little pity or mercy on the way to hell. Even while hobbled by an unnecessary PG-13, Old is an unforgiving piece of work from a marquee filmmaker with nothing left to prove.
It’s hard to spoil a movie like Old for those who have seen the trailer or glanced at the poster, since “What you see is what you get.” Yes, a handful of couples and families end up on a day-long escape at a private beach located just out of sight from their resort hotel. And yes, for whatever reason, the kids, couples and families begin drastically aging, with predicably tragic results. Without necessarily resembling its structure or tone, Old most represents The Happening in presenting a supernatural force that crushes anyone in its path that seemingly can’t be confronted or defeated by human intervention. The enemy isn’t a mentally damaged murderer or would-be supervillain, but seemingly a pitiless fluke of the natural world.
Shyamalan, loosely drawing from Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters’ Sandcastle, sets up his cast of diverse (in terms of demographics and characterization) vacationers as they are driven to a secluded beach hideaway with the promise of a 5:00 pm pick-up. The actor playing the driver will put a devilish smile on your face, as will their refusal to help them carry their luggage past the drop-off point. The central characters are a single nuclear family (led by Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps) on the verge of divorce, dealing with a potential medical catastrophe and badly hiding both from their two kids (Trent, initially age six and Maddox, initially age 11). They are treating this getaway as a kind of “last supper.”
Meanwhile, we’ve got a respected physician (Rufus Sewell), his arguable trophy wife (Abbey Lee), their young daughter (Kara, initially age six) and elderly mother (Kathleen Chalfant) along with a married couple (Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird) coping with her epilepsy. Things go from bad to worse when a dead body washes up on the shore and the implicitly racist doctor blames her befuddled companion (Aaron Pierre). And, yeah, pretty soon everyone starts noticing that the aging process is inexplicably in overdrive, with the kids especially zooming past biological milestones (and thus being played by different-aged actors) in the blink of an eye. But the adults don’t get let off the hook either, as the aging process takes its toll and exacerbates existing conflicts.
The writer/director again blurs the line between realistic human interaction (which often feels quirky compared to the stereotypical Hollywood screenplay) and genuinely unnatural human behavior. Neither the premise nor the crowded cast leaves much room for big acting moments (Thomasin McKenzie and Alex Wolff are the standouts). There are a few lovely emotional beats as our characters cope with the seemingly inevitable, but Shyamalan is arguably more interesting in concocting ghoulish “What if?” scenarios from the film’s elevator pitch. If anything, the film is hampered by a PG-13 rating, as there are offscreen moments and obtuse angles that beg to be seen in their restricted glory. Heck, if you’re going to make $10-$20 million thrillers, you might as well indulge your inner ghoul.
Shyamalan is in essentially “party mode” here. He is no longer concerned with mounting the great artistic comeback (The Visit) or getting that theoretical Unbreakable trilogy out of his system. Shyamalan has self-financed his own artistic renaissance with complete artistic freedom (with budgets below $25 million) and little pressure to live up to earlier expectations as the next Spielberg or the heir apparent to Hitchcock. That the near-death of mid-budget studio programmers and increase in Hollywood homogenization has led to a modest critical reevaluation of The Village and The Happening is a skewed bonus. Old isn’t top-tier Shyamalan, but the lack of pressure to be anything other than a distinctly Shyamalan-ish horror movie makes old both a relentless terror and a comforting watch.
The Sixth Sense was so popular and acclaimed two decades ago that Shyamalan’s sensibilities were presumed (by us and him) to be more mainstream than they actually were. Shyamalan has arguably embraced his destiny as a true malevolent prankster weirdo, whose eccentricities were a feature rather than a bug. That doesn’t mean Lady in the Water is now magically “good, actually,” but his career path has arguably gone in the opposite direction of Tim Burton. Burton began as an almost feared Hollywood goth only to be so copied and beloved that he came to define Hollywood conformity. Shyamalan’s main legacy is in a generation of horror filmmakers who grew up on his early blockbusters and are now concerned with making you cry as making you jump.
There is a comfort in placing Old squarely in the middle of Shyamalan’s filmography. It’s at least good enough to make me hope The Visit wasn’t a fluke. Along with the standard Shyamalan riff on the importance of open communication, there’s plenty of metaphor concerning the “Where did the time go?” mentality of parenthood. The former wunderkind is now 50 years old and watching his daughter direct episodes of Apple TV’s (pretty enjoyable) Servant. But at its (black) heart, Old is an affirmation that Shyamalan can now do whatever the hell he wants without the pressure of delivering a new timeless classic every time out. However, now that he can go nuts, how about some (slightly) larger budgets and an R-rating next time?