We all reckon with our mortality at some point—probably more often than is healthy, if we’re being honest. We spend so much time dwelling on where we’ll be in one year, five years, ten years, twenty. And age may just be a number, but the anxiety of that number changing is still ever-present. In his new thriller “Old,” loosely based on the Swiss graphic novel Sandcastle, writer and director M. Night Shyamalan explores these anxieties and more by compressing the entire lives of a group of people into one single day, with varying results.
“Old” opens with a family arriving at a seemingly idyllic tropical resort for a vacation. Husband and wife Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are preparing to separate, but they are keeping that from their young children, 11-year-old Maddox and 6-year-old Trent, for now so as to give them one more good family vacation. The resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) invites their family as well as that of a doctor (Charles, played by Rufus Sewell), his wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), his mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), and 6-year-old daughter Kara, to spend the day at a private beach. They are joined by a rapper called Mid-Size Sudan (Aaron Pierre), as well as nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and his epileptic wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird). It first becomes apparent that something isn’t right with the beach when the body of a young woman washes up on shore and rapidly decomposes—and then the kids in the group start aging. Fast.
Shyamalan slowly builds up the tension in these early scenes, surely knowing that the majority of audiences will go into this movie familiar with the premise but taking his time to establish the setting and the characters. He fills the screen with a lot of serene long shots of the waves hitting the shore and the kids running in the sand, but the mysterious presence of Mid-Size Sudan and piles of objects left over from previous beachgoers lingering in the background adds a sense of unease. When things finally do start happening, Shyamalan goes absolutely nuts with the camera. He swings it wildly around the characters, starts utilizing more close-ups and off-putting camera angles, in a way that is maybe a little too disorienting for the viewer at times, but that overall contributes to the alarm and confusion that the characters are experiencing. After such a gradual build-up, things start happening so fast it’s almost hard to keep up. Maddox ages from 11 to 16 (played by Thomasin McKenzie), while Trent and Kara go from ages 6 to 11 to 15 played by (Alex Wolff and Eliza Scanlen, respectively, play them as teenagers). While the adults initially don’t noticeably age as much as the kids, their ailments quickly worsen, most notably Charles’ schizophrenia, and his increasingly unpredictable behavior makes him a threat to the others on the beach. Naturally, Shyamalan establishes fairly early on that the group cannot simply leave the beach; every time one of them ventures back through the rock formations from where they entered, they black out and appear back on the beach.
Shyamalan is throwing out a lot of ideas in “Old,” and not all of them stick the landing, while his occasionally cheesy dialogue and the stilted performances from some of the actors make parts of it laughable (although I think it’s important to note that despite the fear running through it, the film is at times intentionally quite funny). But the feelings that the story conjures cut through all of that. “Old” is Shyamalan’s best film in a minute, yes, but it is also perhaps his film that centers around humanity the most. The characters all deal with the panic and fear of their situation in different ways. The kids are rapidly becoming adults, but mentally they are still children, unprepared for maturity and suddenly forced to confront their future. Some of the adults try to be rational, searching for a way to get off the beach. Charles is tortured by what he sees as his failure to perform his duties as a doctor well. Chrystal is distressed over losing her model-worthy looks, and can barely face her suddenly teenage daughter. But Guy and Prisca are prompted to really talk about their relationship and reflect on the mistakes they made. Krieps and Bernal give what are probably the most consistent and believable performances in the entire movie. And throughout, the mystery of what is up with this beach and whether or not any of these characters will escape remains intriguing and engaging.
Where “Old” really flounders is in its last 15 minutes or so, into which Shyamalan inserts a twist that both undermines some of the impact of what came before, and also contains too many big ideas to warrant being shoved into the final few minutes. The moral issue that the twist raises is interesting, but Shyamalan, who spent so much time early in the film building up the premise, gives us virtually no time to consider the question before rushing us into an ending that ties everything up much more neatly than I ever expected—too neatly, in fact. I’m sure many people would disagree with me, but I believe that “Old” would have benefited from more ambiguity. It was perfectly fine solely as a character study, without trying to solve the mystery of the beach, the resort, and how these characters ended up there.
But still, give it up for M. Night Shyamalan, a filmmaker who, whether his final product is terrible or fantastic, always manages to deliver something original. Isn’t that what we’ve all been clamoring for lately, a big movie that isn’t tied to any existing franchise? Even though it doesn’t completely work, watching “Old” was the most fun I’ve had in the movie theater in the two months since I’ve been back post-lockdown. It generates discussion (including some very good memes), and creates genuine empathy for its characters. A lot of the latter could be due to the aforementioned reckonings with mortality that the majority of us share; I don’t think that “Old” persuades us to reconsider our thoughts on that subject, but it does at least get us to think.
Runtime: 108 minutes. Rated PG-13.