When it comes to the modern Masters of Horror, I think it’s safe to say that M. Night Shyamalan is easily one of the most debated purveyors of genre fare. To this writer, what that indicates is that Shyamalan isn’t a storyteller looking to make movies (and now, episodic television) that easily fit into widely accepted narrative structures adopted by so many others, which is why I think he can be a challenging filmmaker for some viewers to really get into. Personally, I’ll take a director that takes risks and continually challenges themselves any day of the week over a director that plays it safe and sticks to a tried-and-true formula. That being said, Old is certainly going to be another divisive film from Shyamalan that may alienate some and frustrate others, due to the film’s frenetic pacing and storytelling structure as well as how the performances are staged here.
And while I wouldn’t put Old in my top three favorite films from Shyamalan anytime soon (those slots are reserved by Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, and Signs), there’s something about his offbeat approach to the existential horror contained within this story that really hit me hard, and despite how weird things get in Old, Shyamalan has concocted a wholly effective vacation from hell here that managed to get under my skin and wasn’t afraid to ask some big questions along the way, either.
Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, Old is centered around a group of vacationers who all arrive at a mysterious tropical resort and decide to take a day trip to an idyllic secluded beach. Once they arrive and a series of alarming anomalies start manifesting themselves, everyone stuck on the beach begins to quickly realize that time works much differently there. And with no apparent means of escaping their ordeal, these travelers struggle to figure out a way to survive against the clock that’s rapidly winding down, stealing a year of their lives for every half hour they are stuck there.
At the center of Old is the Caras family—Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and Guy (Gael García Bernal) are parents to youngsters Maddox (played by Alexa Swinton and Thomasin McKenzie) and Trent (played by Nolan River, Luca Faustino Rodriguez, and Alex Wolff), who have decided to take their kids on a holiday as a means of softening the blow of their impending separation. Joining them on the ill-fated beach are a revered doctor named Charles (Rufus Sewell) and his selfie-taking younger wife, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their daughter Kara (played by Kylie Begley, Mikaya Fisher, and Eliza Scanlen), and Charles’ mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Another couple shows up on the beach later—Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird)—and a stranded rapper known as “Mid-Sized Sedan” (Aaron Pierre) also happens to be lurking about the beach.
The thing that makes Old feel precisely like being dumped right into 90 minutes of a sun-soaked nightmare is just how quickly Shyamalan introduces the terrorizing concept at the heart of this story. Even though the real horror of this story doesn’t hit until around 30 minutes into the film, from the moment the Caras family arrives at the resort, you can just tell something is off, even if you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly that might be. Everything is just a little too perfect (down to the perfectly concocted beverages the resort has ready for when the Carases arrive, as they know precisely what their specific tastes are due to some questions that the family answered prior to their trip). And once tensions begin to amp up in Old, and the characters become aware of what’s happening to them, Shyamalan does not let the throttle up at all until the film’s final resolution comes into play.
The thing is, there’s nothing particularly “scary” about Old, but as far as creating an unsettling feeling of oppressive dread, Shyamalan does a great job of achieving just that with his latest cinematic endeavor. Also, and maybe this is just my “pandemic brain” talking here, but I really appreciated that some of the ideas and themes explored here dive into a lot of the things that I have found myself questioning over the last 16 months, which maybe is why I found Old so effective. Beyond that, as someone who has officially aged out of the “Spring Chicken” phase in my life, I think there are some body horror elements related to the aging process that Shyamalan does a great job of tapping into here, as well as presenting the genuinely upsetting concept of tiny children stuck inside adult-sized bodies and their lack of being able to adequately deal with such circumstances in Old.
Two other elements that I appreciated about Old was the fact that Shyamalan shot the movie on film, which really adds some depth to the visuals, and the cinematography from Mike Gioulakis does a brilliant job of heightening the circumstances of this story (a few times the camera swirls about the ensemble in such a manner that would undoubtedly make Brian De Palma proud). It’s also worth noting that in the film’s final act, things totally go bananas in Old, and that may not work great for some, but those moments ended up being highlights for me.
The two things that keep Old from being a total homerun are the dialogue and the performances. I feel like Shyamalan kept the dialogue in his adaptation a bit too similar to how things would read in a graphic novel, and that didn’t always work in favor of the filmic version of this story. And while I think Shyamalan assembled a talented group of players here, I felt this weird disconnect while watching some of these characters and performances that kept me from being wholly immersed in the horrors of their predicament (Wolff, McKenzie, and Scanlen were the standout performers in Old, hands down).
While it might not be top-tier Shyamalan, there’s still a lot of things about Old that I appreciated and to his credit, this divisive filmmaker is out there making the movies that he wants to make, and I will always dig that. There are definitely going to be quite a few people out there who may not enjoy how Old plays out (its “twist” feels a bit forced and I almost wish the film didn’t have one, to be perfectly honest), but I think if you’re something of a Shyamalan diehard, Old is definitely a cinematic trip worth taking just to see how it stacks up against his other work.
Movie Score: 3/5