It would be a disservice to go too deeply into the plot of Old, because as we all know, movies made by M. Night Shyamalan tend to function better the less information you have. This is not to say that there is or isn’t a twist, just that Old is the type of movie that, by the very nature of its concept, redefines itself with every new scene. As our characters age at an accelerated rate, so do their relationships, goals, and desires. As their physiques change, so to their abilities, and their disabilities. It’s a lot to manage, and Shyamalan is exactly the kind of imaginative storyteller who can keep all of these plates spinning, while also delivering a film that shocks and satisfies in both a plot sense and a thematic one. It’s also worth noting that, much like his previous work, Old is quite funny, and darkly so.
And it’s really worth noting that if you look back of Shyamalan’s filmography, only a few of his movies really have a twist at all. Just sayinnnnn.
That said, it’s the ending of Old that gave me the most trouble, mostly in that it provides compelling, thoughtful answers to questions that I wasn’t asking in the first place. The concept of the film is rather basic: a couple, silently in crisis, is taking their two children on one last vacation before dropping a double bomb on them. First, Mom and Dad are getting a divorce. Second, Mom has a concerning medical condition that may or may not cause large problems down the road. Big ticket items, for sure, but if they can bathe in the sun for a bit, and maintain an air of civility, it might make the emotional growth that they will unfairly thrust upon their children a little easier to handle. But as I’m sure you already know, forced growth is the name of the game. After being shuffled off by resort officials to a private beach for “very special guests” it becomes clear that something supernatural is afoot. Namely that everyone is aging at a very fast rate, even though time is passing like normal.
Right off the bat we are hit with thematic material regarding the passage of time. The ride to the resort uses the standard familial conversation of “are we there yet” to highlight the idea that living in the moment comes with wisdom, but wisdom only comes after many moments have passed. The kids verbally pine for the freedom of adulthood while the parents chuckle in recognition of the blissful ignorance on display. Youth, as so many fortune cookies have said, is wasted on the young.
The kids also play freeze tag immediately upon reaching the beach. This is not a subtle movie.
Prisca (Vicky Krieps), Guy (Gael García Bernal), and their children (Alexa Swinton and Nolan River, for now) are the emotional center of our film, but they are far from the only unfortunate souls trapped in this supernatural accelerator. There’s a doctor (Rufus Sewell), his mother (Kathleen Chalfant), his image-conscious wife (Abbey Lee), and their very young daughter (Mikaya Fisher/Eliza Scanlan). There is a therapist (Nikki Amuka-Bird), her nurse husband (Ken Leung), and a mysterious rapper with the hilarious name of Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre). A credit to Shyamalan is that he uses a mix of tropes and expository dialogue to give us a much fuller picture of who each player is than one could reasonably expect from a high-concept ensemble piece like this. A lot of the dialogue is clumsy when the characters first meet (the script takes advantage of a possibly autistic youth’s need to ask every person he meets both their name and occupation in order to do the introductory heavy lifting), but the lively tone exists in symbiosis with this clumsiness. Everything moves so quick and with such enthusiasm for the material, that to imagine a film that doesn’t blast through introductions is to imagine a film with a less infectious energy.
Shyamalan’s direction is the source of much of this energy. Bravura long takes are employed to maximize the space of the beach while also illustrating the increasing claustrophobia experienced both physically and spiritually by its denizens. Without being too gaudy about it, the camera finds and highlights small physical characteristics as visual anchor points to keep our aging cast of characters consistent. When the youngsters amongst them begin to age, they must be replaced by new actors, and it’s these visual cues (and performance consistencies — credit where it’s due, especially to Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie, both of whom embrace the horror aspect of the film more than anyone else) that keep this high concept from falling of the rails. Many shots go against conventional film wisdom, keeping the characters partially out of frame or at such a distance from the lens that they feel like an afterthought rather than the focus of the moment. But the focus is exactly what they are, and this goofy framing somehow works. Watching the camera swing steadily across a small scene to show me nothing of import on either edge evoked the charge one gets when seeking information while in a panic. And even though the camera is not representative of the point of view of any one character, it reads all the same, looking left, looking right, looking up, down, in hopes that some small detail will provide a solution to the ticking clock of the plot. The near constant motion serves the scary truth that time stops for no one, and it also allows for Shyamalan to let some truly gruesome and shocking images enter frame without warning.
Shyamalan’s frequent cinematographer Mike Gioulakis does incredible work here, allowing the environment to look as much like a dream destination as it does a cruel trap. While I’m sure a green screen was used, I’m equally sure that much of this location was very real, and it looks both crisp and tangible in every moment. At times the lens goes deep, and at other times it remains pointedly shallow. Scenes both bright and dark are crystal clear. In a mainstream market filled with pre-chewed IP, to see every shot so carefully considered is a rare joy.
Also a huge success on a craft front is the score by Trevor Gureckis. It’s as manic and energetic as the film itself, shifting between playful, peaceful, and harrowing depending on the moment. Never does it feel busy or obtrusive, despite being notably active. It feels very old school, but never dated (or old, ha!).
Old is based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, but short of the core concept and a couple of small plot developments, it’s a loose enough adaptation that one won’t spoil the other (I read it in the weeks leading up to the film and can highly recommend it both as a complement to Old and as a solid read on its own). Where the two versions of the story differ is that the novel focuses mostly upon the thematic concerns rather than a concrete plot. It hints at an explanation to the mystery behind the magic beach, but never fully goes there. It’s not what’s important. Old, in perfect Shyamalan fashion does go there. It does offer a solution to the mystery, but as previously noted, the cleverness of it does little to make it feel necessary. After ninety minutes of hardcore body horror, thoughtful rumination on the passage of time, and the creative exploitation of just about every narrative avenue afforded by the concept, I’d have been happy to stay in the surreal realm of the unsolved. That said, the “answers” are satisfying in their own right, and they introduce plenty of ethical quandaries to chew on, even if it takes a weird tonal jump to get there.
Old is messy for sure, but feels so calculated in its messiness that it’s a success. Tonal switches, strange dialogue, wild behaviors — these are all things that happen regularly in real life. And if the entirety of a life was just one day, well yeah, things are gonna get messy. But when Shyamalan is at his best as both a writer and director, which is often the case here, he is capable of some of the finest storytelling around. A quote from Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie), suddenly in the body of a 16-year-old, highlights the crafty prose employed to describe the universal-yet-unique experience of exiting childhood and getting a first, confusing taste of wisdom:
“I don’t feel the same way I felt yesterday, or this morning, and I don’t think my parents would understand. My thoughts have more colors in them now. Yesterday I had a few colors and they were really strong. And now I have more. And they’re quieter.”
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Written by M. Night Shyamalan, Pierr-Oscar Lévy, Frederick Peeters
Starring Vicky Krieps, Gael García Bernal, Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff, Ken Jeung
Rated R, 108 minutes