*** out of ****
(for strong violence, disturbing images, suggestive content, partial nudity, and brief strong language)
Released: July 23, 2021
Runtime: 108 minutes
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Vicky Krieps, Gael Garcia Bernal, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Abbey Lee, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Eliza Scanlen, Aaron Pierre, Embeth Davidtz, Emun Elliott, Gustaf Hammarsten, Francesca Eastwood
As a unique filmmaking voice, M. Night Shyamalan is aging well — even if some wrinkles are starting to show.
Coming out of the gate over twenty years ago as a wunderkind with a box office success that had him tagged as the next Spielberg, Shyamalan went on to suffer a midlife career crisis defined by a long stretch of commercial and critical failures.
Now, he’s enjoying a resurgence. His slow, gradual comeback (starting with The Visit, then amplified by Split) has been more niche than his prime, but it’s also been more secure, confident and unapologetic even as it has remained polarizing.
Old is no different.
Distinctly “M. Night” in every way (for good or ill), Old is what we’ve come to expect from Shyamalan: a suspense/horror thriller that entertains on the whole even as it tests our patience with his cheeky indulgences. I appreciate the artistic conviction, it’s refreshing even when I don’t jive with the choices, but mileage will inevitably vary.
A feature-length Twilight Zone episode at heart, Old is an unnerving fable that literalizes the parental axiom about their children: “They grow up so fast! Where did the time go?” A random group of patrons at an island luxury resort take a day trip to a secluded beach, per the recommendation of the hotel concierge.
Once there, they begin to age quickly; first the kids most dramatically, then more gradually the adults. No one is immune. They’re trapped, too, as the same mysterious power that ages them rapidly (decades worth within hours) also keeps them from being able to leave the beach from any exit path.
As the hours tick by and the effects of aging accelerate (both physically and mentally), things get harrowing and, at times, even gruesome (pushing the limits of what PG-13 should allow).
As a writer/director, Shyamalan constructs and crafts this kind of creepy fable with his own recognizable signature: a high concept premise kept grounded in a real world aesthetic, where an anomaly in nature invisibly wreaks its havoc. The visible effects of this unknown force are seen more through practical movie magic than digital.
His low budget approach is as much an artistic choice as a financial one (he funds his own movies; $18 million here), challenging himself to deliver the goods almost solely on the old school tools of cinematic language. Framing, pacing, cutting, and sound, and in what he chooses to show us or keep from us.
One of his most consistent virtues is also the one that will test modern audiences: his patience. From easing into the story rather than hooking us with a shocking prologue, to building the tension and narrative gradually and steadily, to how he lingers in long takes rather than piecing scenes (and pacing) together via quick cuts from multiple angles. He experiments here, too, choosing to land on odd, sometimes canted frames that are effectively disorienting.
Where Night slips a bit is in the tone. There’s a heightened realism to Old that feels off. It’s intentional, to be sure, born of the same philosophy behind Night’s approach to craft: make things ever so slightly weird so that they are. That’s the right instinct for the aesthetic, but it falters when applied to the performances and some of the more self-conscious (at times corny) dialogue.
To believe an impossible premise, you need to believe the people in it. Too often post-The Happening, that’s hard to do in Shyamalan’s films, including Old. Thankfully, though, it’s just a bug here and not a crippling virus.
In fact, as the core material overcomes Night’s worst impulses, Old conjures a cumulative impact, leading up to one of the most poignant scenes in all of Shyamalan’s films (which is saying something, considering the power of his best work). I was moved.
If you’re waiting for a twist ending, don’t. There isn’t one. Nothing about the very end makes you rethink or recontextualize everything you’ve seen. That said, there’s a substantial J.J. Abrams-style reveal that helps make sense of what’s been going on, even as it (thankfully) keeps the broader metaphysics a mystery.
Not every choice that Shyamalan makes works, but he’s often taking risks when he’s making them. Even though the result can be mixed it’s consistently invigorating, an increasingly rare quality in our franchise-laden movie-scape. In an age of studio tentpoles lacking original stories and voices – not to mention a lack of classic cinematic sensibilities – Night’s the guy we want on that wall, that we need on that wall.
His films may not completely satisfy like they once did but, given all the risk-averse IP alternatives, I appreciate M. Night Shyamalan now more than ever.