Written by: Pierre-Oscar Lévy & Frederick Peeters (graphic novel), M. Night Shyamalan (screenplay)
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, and Rufus Sewell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"There’s something wrong with this beach!"
Following the success of The Visit and Split, we were in a rush to declare that M. Night Shyamalan was “back” after he spent nearly a decade wandering in the wilderness. But the release of Glass and now Old has me wondering what it even means for Shyamalan to be “back.” If we mean a return to making crowd-pleasing thrillers, then The Visit and Split certainly accomplished that, even if those films didn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of earlier successes that had some publications hailing him as “the next Spielberg.” However, history has shown that Shyamalan either has no interest in just crafting conventional crowd-pleasers or has different ideas of what that even means. His success in that realm emboldened him to make increasingly idiosyncratic movies like The Village, The Lady in the Water, and The Happening that instead alienated audiences. From the looks of things, history may be repeating itself since Old once again finds Shyamalan taking a big, weird swing that will definitely not be for everyone. In short, the full Shyamalan experience—questionable story turns, affected performances, bizarre asides, and interesting craftsmanship—is indeed back, for better and for worse.
Adapted from Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters’ graphic novel Sandcastle, Old finds an idyllic getaway going straight to hell when a group of vacationers wind up on a secluded beach hoarding a horrific secret. For the Cappa family especially, the invitation to spend a day in the sun and sand is a welcome break from their personal turmoil. Not only are Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and Guy (Gael García Bernal) staring down an impending divorce, but she’s been diagnosed with an undisclosed medical condition. Their children, Trent and Maddox (Nolan River & Alexa Swinton), remain blissfully unaware, and this vacation is meant to be their last treat before their parents split up. That notion goes south in a hurry when a dead body floats up next to Trent, a gruesome prelude to the horrors about to unfold when the vacationers discover that everyone is rapidly aging. What’s more, they’re inexplicably trapped on the island, as any attempt to leave results in simply blacking out and waking up back on the beach.
It’s easy to see why Shyamalan leaped at the chance to adapt this material after his daughter gifted him the graphic novel on Father’s Day. The hook is immediately compelling, and ripe for all manner of existential and physical horror as the characters age years at a time within hours. Shyamalan acquits himself well here, immediately infusing the picturesque setting with an incongruent, sun-splashed menace. The stillness in the air isn’t peaceful so much as it’s unsettling, and the crystal blue water almost feels too perfect, almost as if this portrait of serenity exists only to be shattered. Shyamalan’s deliberate, creeping sense of terror recalls the approach of his earliest films, where the sensation that something is off is more like a subtle suggestion.
His use of odd framing here creates tension when the camera coyly shoots around overt horrors, allowing the audience to anticipate whatever weird sights await. He’s especially playful in the way he reveals the rapidly aging kids by withholding their appearance until their own parents lay eyes on them, so the audience joins them in shock when they’re suddenly teenagers played by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie. These two are also instrumental in selling the terror unfolding around them, as both retain a frantic, childlike sense of horror despite being trapped in older bodies. I wish there was more of that kind of stuff going on in Old: the existential terror of growing old before your time and inhabiting a body your mind isn’t equipped to control, but the film ultimately glides through a lot of this stuff, save for some notable exceptions.
Instead, Old is a symphony of bad shit happening all at once, with Shyamalan orchestrating various movements of psychological and body horror as the adults especially reckon with their various ailments, like dementia, seizures, and hypocalcemia that only accelerate on this supernatural beach. Shyamalan treats the beach as a blender and tosses all of this (and more) in, letting it splatter around. When the doctor’s (Rufus Sewell) dementia flares up, Old becomes an especially frantic and nasty piece of work whose grisy, violent outbursts accentuate the lingering psychological terrors. In the moment, it’s utterly gripping: as ever, Shyamalan is more than capable of making viewers squirm to the edge of their seats as they recoil at the horrors unfolding before them as they wonder just what in the hell is going on. Old is a brilliantly alienating experience in this respect because its gruesome developments have no regard for that question. Rather, they simmer and swirl around each other, yielding gross-out gags involving an extracted tumor and mangled flesh, and whatever revelations the script holds rest firmly on the back burner. The audience might be seeking answers, but Shyamalan seems to be more interested in indulging the shlock potential of the premise, at least at first.
He’s also intent on putting his own, distinctive stamp on the material. Some of the more outlandish plot developments (like a girl—who is technically six years old but in a teenaged body—giving birth) originate in the graphic novel, but Shyamalan provides some flourishes of his own. There’s a heightened quality to not only the dialogue but most of the performers’ deliveries that’s almost otherworldly. Likewise, the characters’ reactions are often so mannered that you wonder if the big twist will reveal they’re not actually human beings. At one point, when everyone else is losing their shit, the psychologist among them (Nikki Amuka-Bird) speaks in cliché psychobabble, and it’s hilarious—even though I’m not so sure it’s supposed to be. One character is a rapper (Aaron Pierre) is a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan, something nobody questions or makes light of because Shyamalan is nothing if not always sincere.
And yet, one of the hallmarks of the Shyamalan experience is wondering if he’s just screwing with you. Old is no different—it’s often so strange and playful that it wouldn’t be surprising if it were just another round of Shyamalan flexing his genre chops for the hell of it. Sure, there are obvious musings about the passage of time and how confronting your own mortality places your life in perspective, but there’s never the sense that this movie is really about that. For most of its runtime, it’s a light-on-its-feet thriller looking to reap as much chaos from its premise as it possibly can, and it’s quite successful...until.
Because the full Shyamalan experience is back, this familiar refrain rears its head once he decides to provide some answers for the mayhem. While he doesn’t cross every “T” and dot every “i,” the eventual revelation is a clunky, overwrought curtain-pull that deflates the film’s claustrophobic tension. That’s not the worst of it, either: even though I could have done without any explanation at all, the reveal does at least introduce an compelling enough moral quandary that would allow the film to end on an unsettling note. Instead, Shyamalan can’t help himself, so Old goes on another beat longer, and it’s one step too many, maybe because it’s a little too comforting.
Then again, that’s part of the Shyamalan experience, too. As much as he’s known for his odd choices and narrative trickery, he should also be regarded as one of contemporary America’s most sentimental filmmakers. He also reserves a measure of sympathy for his characters that usually doesn’t allow him to leave on a bleak note, so it’s hardly surprising that Old follows suit. Most of Shyamalan’s work operates like this, with the audience taking the good with the bad because that’s what happens when a filmmaker makes bold choices. And Old is nothing if not full of choices, and it reaffirms that Shyamalan is one of our most interesting filmmakers because he’s always good for a moment (or several) that make it all worthwhile. He might pull some punches here (mostly due to a PG-13 rating that’s incapable of exploiting the concept for all of its body horror potential), and it might overstay its welcome, but there are absolutely some moments that convince you it’ll be a midnight movie classic in the coming years. Time will tell if that’s the case, of course, so, for now, let’s appreciate that Shyamalan didn’t allow his critical and commercial drubbings to dull his edge. Forget about whether or not he’s “back”—let’s just be glad that he’s still here and still playing by his own rules.
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