We don’t appreciate M. Night Shyamalan enough. Sure, his career has had its fair share of bruises, and it sometimes feels like those misfires have overshadowed his best films. That he’s refused to hang up his hat and has now navigated himself into something of a small comeback with his recent crop of self-funded, small-budgeted thrillers, is proof that Shyamalan was meant to be a director. And a good thing, too, because he’s one of the last distinctive voices in American mainstream filmmaking. In an era where even mid-budgeted pictures feel overly calculated and built from a checklist, it’s always worthwhile to see what Shyamalan has cooked up next, even if there’s always the risk that it might not turn out.
For the most part, Old continues the precedent set by Shyamalan’s past couple of films. There’s a simple premise that feels pulled from a lost episode of The Twilight Zone, it’s set in an exotic but isolated location, and it has an unexpectedly colorful cast of talented actors you’d never expect to headline a summer film from a major studio. There’s even his trademark twist ending, although this time it feels less flashy and more organic to what’s already been there the whole time. But unlike his previous efforts, M. Night Shyamalan has completely thrown caution – and subtlety, it must be said – to the wind. As a result, Old is the “most” Shyamalan film he’s made yet, and your mileage will most likely depend on whether or not you find that an appealing prospect.
Old sees a family quietly falling apart at the seams taking a trip with several others to a beach where their entires lives are reduced to a single day. Every half hour on the beach seems to age them by another year. This is most noticeable with the children, who quickly age into teenagers, to the utter shock and confusion of their parents. Preexisting medical conditions are exacerbated, including one character’s benign tumor, which grows to the size of a canteloupe in the span of minutes. No matter how hard the characters try, there doesn’t seem to be any way to escape from the beach. And the worst part: the existential crisis of having your entire life condensed and used up right before your eyes.
There are two ways this kind of material can be approached, as either a schlocky and visceral genre picture or a quietly frightening and ruminative drama. Naturally, given his past impulses, M. Night Shyamalan opts for both, but, understandably, the two styles don’t always gel into something cohesive. To his credit, the film constantly walks a tricky tightrope when it comes to tone, and Shyamalan more or less pulls it off by creating a pretty palpable atmosphere of dread. And he wisely knows that the longer the film goes – and the older the characters get – the more the material should embrace a sense of bittersweet acceptance at all the things that have been stolen away and those that have been found at the same time. But, at the same time, it’s Shyamalan, which means ridiculous dialogue that you either find an endearing feature or a nagging bug – everything is telegraphed loudly and empathetically. It’s the first time I wished the director would let one of his films sit in its uncomforting stillnesses.
Shyamalan continues to be a very deeply humanist filmmaker. You get the sense that he genuinely cares for and understands each of his characters, no matter how big a role they play in the grand scheme. Old is no exception, and the film’s best moments are the little ones where a character says a peculiar line of dialogue that completely flips the script on who we thought they were. And Shyamalan never forgets to return to the central family unit the film started with. This isn’t the first time he’s had a married couple struggle with keeping their marriage alive, particularly at the expense of the couples’ children caught in the crossfire. Still, it continues to be an effective storyline for Shyamalan. Here, as the characters have to accept their doomed fate, there are no loud dramatic shouting matches or unfinished conversations – instead, they graciously use what little time they have left to reconcile. It would be a pretty dour summer picture if the whole film played as existentially as this, but it’s still the best element at play.
It’s a shame that Shyamalan feels like he’s in just as much of a rush as his characters’ clocks. As the film careens into the middle portion after the characters figure out the not-so-secretive secret of the beach, Shyamalan plays fast and loose with the scenario, going after any and every thread that could fall from such a premise. Sometimes it produces some downright disturbing body horror, as Shyamalan uses one sequence to ask what happens to wounds if your body is constantly aging. The result is one of the most disturbingly grotesque deaths ever to grace a PG-13 film. Other times, the slapdash nature of constantly trying to play things at all angles cuts potentially interesting threads lose far too soon. It’s hard to imagine anyone becoming bored during these proceedings, but the full weight of everything doesn’t quite hit as hard as a result. You also have to wonder what he might’ve accomplished with a full-bore R-rating. Or what might David Cronenberg have done? He would’ve absolutely married the two approaches together better, though I doubt it would’ve been as heartfelt.
Shyamalan has always been a consummate craftsman, often touted as a modern Hitchcock early in his career because of his eye for detail. Old‘s best asset is that the director has never seemed more excited and eager to try new and interesting things with his camerawork and sound design. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis frames every shot with the intent to conceal information for as long as impossible, waiting until things bottle up to an unbearable degree before finally showing us what we wanted to see. Other times, the editing takes us away right at the moment of impact to great effect. Gioulakis’ camera also brings the location to life, transforming it from a tropical paradise to a hellish prison even though he’s only slightly changed the angle we’re viewing things from. Then there’s the sound design, with a mix so potent I thought the noises were coming from directly behind me. It’s worth seeing Old in the theater just for the visual and aural experiences alone.
I liked Old about as much as it also frustrated me – but I’d much rather wrangle with something like this than endure the latest competent but wholly forgettable Marvel blockbuster. The latter offers a safe viewing experience that never wants to challenge, whereas the former at least has the ability to elicit an emotional response. That makes Old a minor victory for Shyamalan, though I found it to be the weakest of his recent output. Still, it did one thing right. It had me leaving the theater asking… What’s next for M. Night Shyamalan and when can I see it?