Let’s make one thing clear: M. Night Shyamalan has unfairly been put into the category of directors who have been deemed synonymous with a certain brand. As Michael Bay is to explosions, so too is Shyamalan to the “twist” ending. This sentiment has led to misunderstandings in some of his greatest works. Take “The Village,” for example – the audience expected more horror or a mind-blowing twist, so anything but that was dubbed a letdown.
Fast forward to today, and Shyamalan is still a polarizing figure among moviegoers, with some completely writing him off just because every movie he makes doesn’t live up to “The Sixth Sense.” Managing expectations is paramount with any director, especially one trying to shake off a gimmick that was forced upon him, and the reception of Shyamalan’s latest film proves that.
His new film is titled “Old,” which feels like a high-concept episode of the “Twilight Zone” on acid. The story centers around a family on a tropical holiday who discover that the secluded beach where they are staying – for just a few hours, mind you – is somehow causing them to rapidly age. Shyamalan wrote the script, adapting it from a 2010 graphic novel by Pierre Oscar Lévy and artist Frederik Peeters called “Sandcastle.”
There are three separate families at the beach, with everyone mostly being there in service to the plot. Almost all of the adults in the film turn in some great performances. The main family of four, whose parents are played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps, are solid and act as the emotional through-line as the story progresses. Then there is Rufus Sewell and Abbey Lee as the Doctor and Trophy Wife, respectively, who each deal with their own personal struggles that are bubbling to the surface, and Lee brings some much-needed levity to the film. Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung and Aaron Pierre round out the other notable adults, but their roles are squandered by plot service and shallow characterizations.
The children are played by various actors as they progressively age, but the two most notable are Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie. Shyamalan has a way of writing dialogue that also progresses the plot in an organic way, but here there are times when that dialogue can come across as tinny and detached. The younger actors struggle to find a rhythm within the dialogue – whether that is an issue with the script or the direction remains to be seen. Because the kids are aging rapidly – every 30 minutes acts as two years – the older versions still talk like little children, which ends up feeling very distracting and silly.
There is a lot to enjoy about the film, as it is most certainly one of the campiest and most confidently-directed films of Shyamalan’s career. As the beachgoers start to understand their predicament, more and more desperate actions are taken in an attempt to escape. Dealing with mortality and aging has been discussed in films before, but the unique way it’s tackled in “Old” somehow makes it more relatable and terrifying as you watch it unfold.
The story becomes more and more bonkers as the mysterious beach continues to thwart each new escape plan, and it even gets strange and confusing enough to include a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan. This film certainly isn’t scary, but it does have a few elements of horror, specifically body horror, that will either leave you cringing or laughing your ass off.
Riding the fine line between PG-13 and R, there are enough thrills and kills to satisfy genre fans, and enough earnestness from Shyamalan to possibly bring some betrayed fans back into the fold.
“Old” releases in theaters on July 23, 2021.
Film critic and member of the NCFCA and SEFCA