A filmmaker of extraordinary vision, M. Night Shyamalan has the ability to communicate deep wells of emotion with as little as a pan of the camera. Unfortunately, his screenplays are almost all marred by overly explicit dialogue, one-note characters, wafer-thin plot logic, and, of course, a slavish adherence to a shocking third-act twist.
All of those traits, good and bad, are in full view in Old, an alternately riveting and inane high-concept thriller about a beach that renders anyone who steps foot on it to age by two years in a single hour. On a scene-to-scene basis, the film boasts some of Shyamalan’s most subtly dazzling, Polanski-esque visual strategies, but even Roman himself would have a tough time turning this ludicrous script into a truly gripping thriller. In the moments when Old works, it’s because Shyamalan embraces the inherent weirdness of his material.
Old, based on Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters’s 2010 graphic novel Sandcastle, opens with an upper-middle-class family arriving at a luxurious resort, where they’re greeted perhaps a little too politely by the staff. There’s an obvious yet mysterious friction between Guy (Gael García Bernal) and his wife, Prisca (Vicky Krieps), that Shyamalan gracefully conveys with a shot from Prisca’s perspective. Guy and their two children, 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six-year-old Trent (Nolan River), are horsing around, and through the use of a reflective window, the shot seamlessly captures Prisca’s bittersweet visage, succinctly emphasizing both her love for her family and her distance from them.
Far less sophisticated is a sledgehammer-obvious scene in which Shyamalan simply has the couple shout their thematically resonant character traits at each other: “You’re always thinking about the future!” Prisca complains, to which Guy retorts, “You’re always thinking about the past!” In case this distinction weren’t obvious enough, Shyamalan makes sure that we know that Guy works as an actuary and that Prisca works as a museum curator.
In the beginning, there’s an intriguingly enigmatic quality about Prisca’s persona, owing in great part to Krieps’s deliberately opaque performance as well as to the subtle ways in which Shyamalan obscures her in the frame, highlighting her isolation from the rest of her family. But all of Prisca’s secrets are revealed about halfway through Old in the form of one big exposition dump that drains any lingering sense of mystery from the character, explaining away the woman’s sense of alienation with some armchair psychologizing.
One might expect Guy and Prisca’s competing notions of time to come into play once the film’s central premise establishes itself, but Shyamalan doesn’t seem to know what to do with the heady concepts that fuel it. The family loads into a hotel shuttle with a handful of other vacationers for a relaxing day at a remote beach only to soon discover, first, a dead body, and second, that all the children in the group appear noticeably older after just a few hours.
Not long after this revelation, the audience also learns that one of the beachgoers, a vain doctor named Charles (Rufus Sewell), just so happens to be a murderous psychopath. Shyamalan is no stranger to conflating mental illness and violence in his films, but Charles more unfortunately repositions the story from one of slowly creeping dread at the characters’ imminent demise into more typical thriller fare about a knife-wielding maniac.
Shyamalan has plenty of fun craftily drawing out the reveals of the rapidly aged characters with shrewdly canted camera angles and expertly wringing every last drop of drama from one particularly shocking revelation. But even at its most fun, you can’t stop wondering if the film’s wacky premise is merely the pretext for a loony, go-for-broke genre exercise, or if Old is meant to be an allegorical meditation on the tragic beauty of aging and the mysteries of time. For most of its runtime, the film clumsily attempts to be both, mostly succeeding at the former thanks to Shyamalan’s amped-up direction and failing miserably at the latter due to the shallow concepts and maudlin sentimentality that are endemic to the script.
In its most bizarre touch, however, the film largely abandons both of these modes in its final passage, abruptly transitioning into a kind of cartoonish social satire by virtue of an out-of-leftfield plot twist that introduces an entirely different set of themes scarcely hinted at in any of the scenes that preceded it. This final revelation doesn’t so much change our view of what’s happened over the preceding 90 minutes as drape it all in sardonic irony. While the twist mostly serves to further muddle the film’s already over-complicated and under-explored ideas, one can’t help but admire the sheer bonkers bravado with which Shyamalan deploys it.
Late in the film, a now-middle-aged Trent (Emun Elliott) asks his sister (Embeth Davidtz) whether everyone continues to feel like a child inside as they age. For Shyamalan, the answer is an obvious and emphatic yes. For better and for worse, his films are the works of a kid at heart, one who will sacrifice emotional resonance to wild, reckless, often ill-advised genre maneuvers if it means wowing his audience. If he doesn’t completely succeed in that goal with Old, like a precocious child performing a magic trick, it’s still at least fun to watch him try.