2021 | rated PG-13 | starring Rufus Sewell, Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie | directed by M. Night Shyamalan | 1 hr 48 mins |
Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vickey Krieps) bring their kids on a tropical island vacation, with the idea to give them a good memory before telling them that that Prisca has a debilitating disease and that the marriage is on the rocks. On a day excursion, a tour guide (f’ing M. Night Shyamalan) takes them down to a secluded beach where they are joined by other hotel guests. Soon strange things start happening, a body washes up on shore and the kids seem to be changing and growing at an alarming rate. Time is speed up on this beach and everyone is rapidly aging, forcing the tourists to race against time to find a way to get over the cliffs and out of their trap.
Based on a graphic novel and in the directorial hands of Hollywood’s nuttiest auteur M. Night Shyamalan, Old is a cracking idea for a horror thriller in vintage Stephen King novella fashion that gets botched 8 ways from Sunday by Shyamalan’s latest attempt to turn a straightforward tale of survival into a convoluted mess of big circus theatrics. There is a David Chronenbergian body horror film at the heart of Old but Shyamalan doesn’t have the interest in tapping into a universal fear of aging and is so addicted to the pay day of a PG-13 rating that he is unable to vividly depict each characters fate to their naturally gruesome conclusion.
But Old is uniquely frustrating even in the realm of Shyamalan’s well known pension for mixing Saturday Morning Cartoon nonsense with pretentious self-indulgent filmmaking. As our characters age before our eyes, as their minds and bodies deteriorate into madness and incapacitation, Shyamalan very often simply doesn’t show it to us, literally turning his camera away or obscuring the action with some bizarre close-up or angle that obscures what we would naturally be seeing. This is very different than letting your imagination do the work. Hinting at something and letting the audience imagine something that would be scarier than whatever you could solidify in front of them. This is the very engine of the film, it’s the source of every action and reaction from every character. Because Shyamalan used to be so often compared to Steven Spielberg in his hayday, it’s like in Jaws if Spielberg never showed the shark or if it popped up out of the water and everyone on land saw it but our view was obscure by an umbrella. What Shyamalan does in Old is deliberate obstruction. Putting barriers in front of or turning the camera away from things we would naturally need to see.
The director runs through a laundry list of aging abnormalities in here. One guest (Rufus Sewell) starts to go senile, one with progressive MS swims into the bay and doesn’t make it very far, someone goes deaf, someone goes blind, someone with a calcium deficiency ends up with a case of Futurama’s Bonitus which is funnier than it is horrifying. The characters work the problem: do we climb over the rocks, wait for the tide to die down, slowly walk through the caves. However, the chief problem with the film is that the problem is ultimately presented as unsolvable. Hopeless misery porn is one thing I can get behind, but a movie with a ticking clock element and an ensemble working a problem kind of needs to have a solution. Ultimately, this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie and we once again get to a humdinger of a ridiculous ending. Not unlike The Village or Glass before it, Shyamalan likes his conspiracy theories. This one is idiotic.
Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff (Hereditary) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) are three proven good actors who give career worst performances here. Every horrific scenario here is undercut with these people trying to make Shyamalan’s bafflingly bad dialog believable. My favorite was the discovery that a dog has just died and the actor emphasizes, not that the dog just died, but that “It was just alive!”. Acting is usually the last thing to sink a movie for me, but this is painful, amature, filmed-in-my-backyard stuff. It’s not quite clear if anyone could make this script work. There is a scene in this movie where two kids talk about getting a house and a mortgage and one of the characters is a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan. Shyamalan has gotten so embarrassingly out of touch, he’s approaching a Tommy Wiseau alien-observing-humans level of distance between reality and his characters.
While it’s common for a director to end up with a mangled up movie due to studio notes, contractual obligations and budgetary limitations (which given how bad the effects are here may have played a factor). The thing about Old – like many Shyamalan movies – is that so many utterly bizarre choices make it on film here that it seems like Shyamalan was left alone. There is a steady, overly serious, false confidence projecting off of this thing that feels like Shyamalan made exactly what he wanted, how he wanted. As if he thinks this is a home run that is going to make people both gasp and ponder our own fleeting existence on this world. Issues of existence and time go unexplored, as do opportunities for harrowing thrills. In the end Old is as reductive as it’s title with shockingly bad performances and dialog.