Review: ‘Old’ highlights M. Night Shyamalan’s weaknesses, but also his strengths

I think a lot about M. Night Shyamalan. I don’t like all of his movies, but all of his movies are unmistakably his movies, and I love him for that. So what makes an M. Night Shyamalan movie? Janky dialogue delivered weirdly and a very straightforward understanding of human emotion and behaviour, but also a keen eye for visuals and a newly unparalleled ability to use the camera to tell a story. He is, in a word, a dichotomy. His latest film Old is no different.

Old has a straightforward setup. A group of people go to the beach, and they start ageing rapidly. They try to leave, but they can’t. That’s basically it. It’s simple, but it’s such an interesting concept to watch characters react to. Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), who have brought their children Trent (played by Alex Wolff, mostly) and Maddox (played by Thomasin McKenzie, mostly) to the beach, are also going through some marital strife, which they will have to work through as the day goes on. But, of course, suddenly things become a little clearer when you age two years every hour.

They aren’t alone on the beach, either. There’s Charles (Rufus Sewell) and Chrystal (Abbey Lee), along with their daughter Kara (played by Eliza Scanlen, mostly) and Charles mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), as well as Jarin and Patricia (Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird). Charles seems on edge from the moment we meet him, and the rest of the family is walking on eggshells, while Jarin and Patricia seem very in love. Also on the beach is rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who arrived with a woman whose body you see in the trailer, which kicks off the mystery.

Old
(from left) Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Trent (Alex Wolff) in Old, written for the screen and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

I don’t want to spoil any of what follows because I think it is probably best experienced as blind as possible, but suffice to say that Shyamalan hasn’t lost his knack for visual storytelling or tension building. Old is very much a horror film, and when the script calls for something horrific, he knows exactly what to show and what not to. A mid-movie impromptu surgery scene is probably the most effective at this, but it remains true throughout.

He also makes excellent use of camera placement, using angles and tricks of focus to obscure just how fast the kids are going up and mask the subtle makeup effects that the adult actors are gaining from scene to scene.

The entire cast is great, with Bernal and Krieps being the standouts. They have a genuine connection between them, one that is clearly long developed but recently broken, and the scenes where Guy and Prisca are among the most affecting. Sewell is in fine form as well. As Charles mental state deteriorates with his age, his shifts in body language and tone let you know well ahead of things going wrong that things are definitely going to go wrong.

Lastly, Alex Wolff –already known as a reliable and interesting presence in whatever you’re about to watch him in– and Thomasin McKenzie –already known for playing young women who have to be mature beyond their years– are great as the kids, especially in scenes where they are playing full-sized people with the minds of children.

Old
(from left) Prisca (Vicky Krieps), Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie), Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Trent (Luca Faustino Rodriguez) in Old, written for the screen and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

Of course, the big ideas and the performances keep the film afloat, as the dialogue definitely has that janky Shyamalan touch. There’s not a ton of subtlety in anything anyone is saying, but at least the actors are putting so much into it that it works.

In the end, one thing that Old does not really have is a big twist. Yes, we eventually find out how the beach works and why these particular people ended up there for a day trip. If you’re expecting a big, out of nowhere moment that will recontextualize everything you’ve seen, let me tell you now it’s not coming. The reveals that we get make sense, and the movie gets a fairly complete ending, which is actually one of its problems; I feel like the end would have been more impactful if at least a little bit more had been left up to the imagination.

All in all, Old is not the best movie that Shyamalan has made, but it’s miles away from his worst too. It’s high concept and full of ideas, and like all of his movies, it is very singularly an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Do with that information what you will, but I liked it.


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