When it comes to an M. Night Shyamalan movie, half of the fun is watching the public reaction from the time it’s announced to the movie’s release. Few filmmakers spark a more vocal and opinionated reaction than Shyamalan. Those who love him stand by him through thick and thin. Those who don’t have a compulsion to share their disdain anytime his name is mentioned. It didn’t take long for those impulses to kick back in following the announcement of his new film “Old”.
That’s not to say Shyamalan hasn’t earned some of the scrutiny. He had a pretty lengthy run of disappointments from 2004 through 2013 that included stinkers like “The Lady in the Water”, “The Last Airbender”, and “After Earth”. It ended up souring a segment of his fanbase and many have clung to their animus despite his (mostly) return to form with movies like “The Visit” and “Split”.
While “Old” isn’t likely to be heralded as one of Shyamalan’s best, it’s a far cry from being among his worst. Like many of his films, it’s built around a cool idea and Shyamalan gets all of the mileage out of it he can. His story is inspired by the Swiss graphic novel “Sandcastle” which was given to him as a Father’s Day gift from his daughters. His three-act adaptation features many of his familiar trademarks including his knack for developing a steady sense of dread and (of course) the inevitable ‘big twist’. One noteworthy difference here is the non-stop intensity which is both a strength and a weakness. There were moments when I wanted the movie slow down so I and the characters could to catch our breath. On the other hand, that same relentless tension is what kept me glued to the screen.
The movie opens with a vacationing family of four arriving at a luxurious tropical island resort. Husband Guy (Gael García Bernal) and his noticeably pre-occupied wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps) chose the place for their last family vacation before sharing some pretty upsetting news with their children, six-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton). As the family debates how they should spend their first full day, the resort manager tells them about a beautiful and quiet private beach on the other side of the island. He even arranges to have a driver (Shyamalan in his signature cameo) take them there and pick them up later.
Guy, Prisca, Maddox, and Trent arrive at the off-the-beaten-path beach along with a few others from the resort. They include a stressed-out doctor (Rufus Sewell), his narcissistic wife (Abbey Lee), his elderly mother (Kathleen Chalfant), and his young daughter (Kyle Bailey). There’s also a friendly but antsy middle-aged couple (Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird). And lastly there’s a rapper with a persistent nosebleed (Aaron Pierre) who goes by the hilariously bad stage name of Mid-Sized Sedan. They all settle in on this gorgeous stretch of beach that’s surrounded by crashing turquoise waves on one side and tall rocky cliffs on the other. What could possibly go wrong?
In case you forgot, this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie so A LOT can go wrong and it does. Within minutes of their arrival on the beach Shyamalan is already tightening the screws and rolling out his hellish nightmare. It turns out that time is out of whack on the beach. Years go by in a flash and suddenly everyone is aging at a terrifying pace. And of course there’s no cell phone service and anyone who tries to leave the beach finds themselves knocked out cold. To say any more would be a disservice because the best part of a movie like this is unwrapping the mystery and watching how things play out. In that sense Shyamalan hits his target. “Old” will keep you guessing, searching for clues, and trying to figure out how all the pieces fit.
Shyamalan also does a good job of getting the most out of his remote setting. He takes a postcard quality paradise and out of it creates a near suffocating sensation of being trapped. He also uses his camera to play around with our perception of time and space. Along with his DP Mike Gioulakis, Shyamalan leans into a number of meticulously planned visual flourishes including eerie tracking shots, slightly tilted angles, and some off-kilter compositions. Some grab more attention than they need to, but most help nail down the feeling of unease the filmmaker is going for.
“Old” packs an impressive cast and the performances are (mostly) good enough to do the job. Both Bernal and Krieps come out a little stiff but loosen up over time. The bigger problem is the even stiffer dialogue which no amount of talent onscreen can fully cover up. It goes hand-in-hand with Shyamalan’s tendency to have his characters spell out more than they show. And as for character-building, the script lacks a certain intimacy meaning we never really get to know any of the people we meet. They still earn our empathy, but we never get to see below their surfaces.
The movie is helped immensely once the young children are suddenly teens. Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff and Eliza Scanlan instantly strengthen the cast and bring a certain frantic energy that helps drive the story towards its anticipated twist. It leads to a satisfying finish that won’t leave your jaw on the floor, but fits very nicely with the buildup. Will it all be enough to satisfy the naysayers? I doubt it, so expect some jubilant takedowns drenched in hyperbole to start popping up on your Twitter feed. But while this modestly budgeted thriller is hampered by its flaws. it’s ultimately able to overcome them. “Old” sees Shyamalan once again blending the supernatural with the real world to make something that’s uniquely his own. Not everyone will be onboard, but I was. “Old” opens in theaters tomorrow (July 23rd).