Old M. Night Shyamalan

Old is M. Night Shyamalan firing on all cylinders… unfortunately

This high-concept horror film starring Gael García Bernal feels disjointed and slight despite Shyamalan’s best efforts.

There are few filmmakers as talented as M. Night Shyamalan whose bodies of work I dislike as much. With a singular style and a desire to generally go against the grain with his projects, Shyamalan seems like a filmmaker worth connecting with — and yet, every time, I find myself struggling not to find his movies laughably on the nose and absurd. His latest, Old, certainly doesn’t buck the trend, painstakingly stretching out a decent Twilight Zone premise into a boneheaded treatise on aging and medical ethics (?!) that winds up being less than the sum of its parts. Working in overtly allegorical mode, Shyamalan pulls out all the stops visually to little avail.

Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps play a couple on the verge of a divorce who decide to take their son and daughter (6 and 11, respectively) to a tropical resort as a last ditch effort to bring some joy into their lives before breaking the news to them. At the resort, the family is clued in by staff about the existence of a secluded, paradisiac beach that only “nice” customers are allowed to use. Alongside a dickhead doctor (Rufus Sewell), his trophy wife (Abbey Lee) and their six-year-old daughter, the family heads to the beach only to find that they black out when they try to leave it — and the more time they spend on the beach, the more they age rapidly. Children soon turn to teens and eventually adults, while the adults themselves begin to waste away, their medical problems exacerbated by the rapid passage of time.

Faced with a rather limited physical space in which to ply his trade, Shyamalan really pulls out all the stops, lining up showy trick shots and gimmicky angles one after the other. Some scenes play out almost entirely from a distance as the camera sits in the ocean, waves crashing into the lens. Other scenes with shocking reveals are stretched out to the breaking point, with said reveal creeping unseen at the edge of the frame for minutes on end. Characters see things that are kept off-camera for as long as possible; in other instances, an extreme bird’s-eye-view reveals something that no one else can see. Taken separately, all of these visual calisthenics are pretty interesting, but when they’re lined up one after the other for storytelling purposes, they feel disjointed and affected. What originally comes across as original visual storytelling soon gives way to meaningless acrobatics that eventually get in the way of what’s being told.

Like many of Shyamalan’s less successful projects, Old disappoints in a way that seems written in the stars. The concept (which is based on a graphic novel, only the second one of his films to be based on an existing property) is tantalizing, but it’s also the kind of thing that probably works better in theory than in practice. The more Shyamalan peels away the layers of the onion, the more disappointing and ridiculous the concept feels, eventually leading the way for truly unhinged revelations delivered in the weirdly flat and affectless style that Shyamalan pioneered in The Happening. None of this feels accidental. For all of its flaws and weird decisions, Old is very much an M. Night Shyamalan film. Never really comfortable within the framework of “so bad it’s good,” Shyamalan exists on his own insane wavelength — and I do not.

Old M. Night Shyamalan
Old, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, starring Gael García Bernal

It would be hacky and more than a little convenient to say that Old would work better as an episode of Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone. It’s not exactly rocket science to claim that something you don’t like would be better if there were less of it. But like The Happening before it, Old builds from an interesting premise and squeezes the life out of it with such precision that it’s nearly impossible not to become immune to its charms. The cast does rather good work considering some of what they’re asked to do (particularly Alex Wolff, Thomasin Mckenzie and Eliza Scanlen, who are given the unenviable task of being children in adult bodies for the bulk of the film) but Old has better ideas than it has good sense, and the film’s pat moral lessons feel rather unwelcome at the end of an already harebrained film.

On one hand, it’s encouraging to see a major filmmaker being allowed to do whatever the hell he wants, even if what he wants is fairly insane and disjointed. On the other hand, I do wonder how much of Old is precisely just that: a sort of aimless style exercise with dubious intentions that exists simply because it can and because there’s enough of a kernel of a good idea here. Existing in a weird space between extremely po-faced and heightened to the point of hysteria, Old is, to its credit, very much in line with its director’s general vision. ■

Old opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, July 23. Watch the trailer here:

Old, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, starring Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell and Abbey Lee

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