No spoilers here, but I recommend reading this after seeing Old.
Whenever a new M. Night Shyamalan film drops much of the ensuing discourse revolves around his fabled use of narrative misdirection. But such blusterous drumbeating often fails to recognize why his particular brand of cinematic trickery has been so effective over the last two decades. The guy is a natural at keeping the audience’s attention, not through sleight-of-hand but increasingly tense human conflict.
While the twists can be hit or miss, the setups themselves are unsettling and indicative of the filmmaker’s core interests. More than Spielberg or Lucas or Nolan, most of Shyamalan’s films grapple with the gradual disruption of prolonged human suffering, specifically in the cases of people who have accepted that languishing in silence for years is the only way to exist. It takes the visceral horrors of supernatural, superhuman, extraterrestrial, or ecological reckonings to jar these characters out of their numbing trance, ultimately testing the mettle of their physical and mental strength, not to mention their very soul.
I’ve always found Shyamalan’s variations on this theme to be fascinating, even when the film’s themselves aren’t great. He envisions everyday life as a thin sheen that only slightly deflects the sinister underbelly no one wants to see, then uses story and symbolism to slowly destroy that sense of denial. Are these characters ultimately better off being awakened to their powers, feelings, ailments, or weaknesses? I’d argue hopefully, even when the end result is quite painful for them.
In many ways, Old confronts these elements more directly than any of Shyamalan’s previous work. The first act introduces an unhappily married couple named Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) who are finally on the verge of separation. They’ve decided to take their two children - hip hop obsessed 11-year old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and precocious six-year old Trent (Nolan River) - on holiday in a last ditch attempt to make some happy memories before the inevitable split. “Stop wishing away this moment,” Prisca tells her impatient son during their bus trip to the swanky seaside resort in an unnamed tropical island getaway.
But that’s exactly what Guy and Prisca have been doing for years. The anger and resentment they’ve felt toward each other has festered into silence and distance, something Shyamalan visualizes nicely when the family is invited to attend a private beach by the hotel manager. After setting up folding chairs on the sand, Guy and Prisca sit quietly in their separate frames, trapped in twin shots of misery. Their children romp around on the beach aware but unfazed by the bitter realities of adulthood, exploring the caves of a massive rock face that surrounds the beach like a castle wall. One brilliant shot sprints between the kids as they play tag, zooming in and out before stopping on the face of a little girl frozen in time.
But nothing on this beach stays the same for long. Shyamalan gradually begins to show his hand with a Sci fi concept that could have been ripped right from The Twilight Zone. First, the children start aging at an unprecedented rate, and before long the adults themselves begin to understand that this particular plot of land has elemental powers of which no one is immune. Gnarly examples abound; a small tumor grows to the size of a cantaloupe in a matter of minutes; dead bodies fully decompose in hours; and one character’s worsening mental illness turns violent.
The gimmick, i.e. the rapid aging of each character and all the complications that this causes, really just exists to explore how each person chooses to accept or recoil from the hard private truths that are suddenly made very public. Up to this point, Shyamalan’s filmography has been rooted in the mythology and lore of backstories (see Unbreakable -> Split > Glass) which influence character motivation in the present. In Old, all of that is jumbled up by the emotional panic and speed with which bodies and minds fall apart. Degradation, growth and birth happen within moments of each other, which adds to this overall sense of bewilderment. Formulating any sort of rational response becomes impossible because there’s literally not enough hours in the day to do so.
I’m being vague here on purpose so that you too can enjoy the cagey and subversive trajectory of Old without knowing too many specifics. This is a deceptively wrenching film that respects how much of life is about making mistakes and being forced to live with them. Only here, that process occurs at light speed, and only the lucky ones are afforded some fleeting moments to appreciate these past experiences with immediate and candid reflection.
Late in the film, Guy and Prisca share a scene together that is so heartbreaking it makes you reappraise every single one of their leaden interactions that has come before. People so rarely appreciate each other, not at home or on an amazing vacation. But here, on a gorgeous beach where the inevitable outcome for everyone is forgetting and being forgotten, these two people both remember a time when only the current moment mattered. The wrinkled smiles on their faces say it all.
Old opens in wide theatrical release Friday, July 23.
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