M. Night Shyamalan’s Old Review
PLOT: A family takes a trip to a scenic beach, only to discover the stunning location has the power to rapidly age visitors and stop them from leaving.
REVIEW: M. Night Shyamalan has made classic thrillers (The Sixth Sense, Signs) and classic stinkers (The Happening, After Earth). But for the first time in his over two decades of filmmaking, he has delivered his first movie that feels destined, if not directly designed, to be a cult hit – likely to be hated by typical audiences but cherished and lauded by a core fanbase. OLD (based on the graphic novel “Sandcastle” by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters) is a thriller that bounds along a tightrope between unintentionally funny nonsense and intense chaos that makes complete sense, coming off as an absurdist piece of art. It’s such an exercise in incoherent, delirious babble that Shyamalan defies you to look away from, as a director finally finding a movie where he can indulge in some of his worst sensibilities and make the argument that doing so is the entire point.
But before all that, his movie starts innocently enough, almost to the point where there’s little reason to expect anything will go wrong at all. We’re introduced to a series of characters, primarily a family of four on vacation at a luxury resort – parents Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), and children Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and Trent (Nolan River). We don’t learn much about them other than the parents are going through a separation and that the adorable awkward Trent and his protective older sister and close siblings. Nothing is shady about the resort, and it looks like a perfectly scenic vacation. But while this family dynamic is meant to form the emotional backbone of what’s to come, when the family and several others take a scenic trip to a nearby beach, virtually none of it matters.
To say Shyamalan dials up the intensity when things get going is a grand understatement. When it’s time to get things into gear, the tone quickly revs up to “bat shit crazy” right quick and doesn’t let up for the majority of the runtime. After a few hints of things feeling weird for each of the characters, it soon becomes clear that while on the beach everyone begins to age rapidly. How rapidly? A deduction by Prisca pegs to about one year every 30 minutes they’re on the beach. Soon Trent, Maddox, and another little girl begin to turn into teenagers, the adults begin to show signs of flaring, underlying medical conditions, and chaos of all sorts reigns. It’s like “Lord of the Flies” if they instantly smashed the conch shell and 20 minutes later were hunting down Piggy for sport.
From the get-go, Shyamalan has no intention of making this a slow and steady build around a mystery. The vicious form of nature that is the beach, everything begins to happen so fast there’s no time to let things settle and steadily escalate. The movie at its core is pure, rapid escalation because it has to be. So much is thrown at the screen at a constant rate there is no time to grab hold and make sense of anything. It’s just one bizarre series of events after another, with no one able to do anything but scream, act like fools, and constantly fail to figure anything out.
When Shyamalan is at some of his worst as a writer, characters spew dialogue of such a precise level of stupidity, saying things that no human being in that situation would ever say. His style plagued movies like The Happening and The Last Airbender, and such is the case here, as adults trying to rationalize unimaginable instances sound impressively stupid. For example, see Prisca when she says her children aging almost a decade was because of “something they ate” or “they must have caught something.” But going back to an earlier point, this is Shyamalan getting his very talented cast of actors to very seriously deliver chuckle-worthy dialogue, while also getting to rationalize it all as legitimate responses. These people have literally no clue what’s going on and nothing ever changes to help them make sense of it, so trying to explain it away in admittedly stupid ways seems valid.
Driving home the often inane dialogue and sheer absurdity of the action is Shyamalan playing around with various camera angles in a way that makes it all feel disorienting. Wild close-ups, random zooms, off-center shots; all of it is Shyamalan going for bonkers and mostly succeeding. He’s fully aware of how hard he needed to drive it all home for the sake of giving the undoubtedly thin premise some legs. I found myself in a trance of utter nonsense, swept back and forth between all manner of age-related chaos, as one severe act is replaced by another. His style is bolder than he’s ever been, but also devoid of any sense of pacing beyond sheer speed and lack of restraint.
But, again, there are arguments to be made this is all the point. Anyone in this fantastical scenario would also be at the mercy of constant anguish and lack of control. Absorbing us in the turmoil is sort of the whole point for the sake of one wholly intense experience that has little going for a story, and is all about the sensories. Not helping matters, some actions are taken by characters that are so absurd and out of place, it blazes past suspenseful and further into the realm of camp. The only way to stay hooked is to expect nothing from the craft and the performers and accept it’s all nonsense. When a now 20-something Trent (Alex Wolff) walks up to his family for the first time — beaming with a grin that still screams six-year-old — it’s impossible not to burst out laughing. Nothing about moments like these are shocking or terrifying, but rather hilariously absurd that is begs the question if this is meant as a horror-comedy. This is something Shyamalan was able to stumble on with The Visit, but he can’t get away with that here, as he’s clearly going all for thrills, sometimes failing stupendously.
The same goes for moments of characterization. Take a moment where a woman, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), talks about a former lover to a now 20-something Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie) after one unsettling occurrence, which despite Lee’s commitment, just sounds silly. Because the tension is at a constant 11, any attempts at pathos come off way too over the top and no matter how talented of actors they are, none of these character beats land as they should. Even moments tied to the core emotion of the movie – the drama between the primary family – feels tacked on and sometimes aggressively out of place. Among it all is an ensemble giving it their all, and they all do commendable work through the often clunky dialogue.
But even amidst so much mind-numbing relentlessness, there are a few moments that manage to take a turn and deliver the right amount of shock. Of course, I won’t go into what these moments are, but they do come when it seems Shyamalan has found a better rhythm. When things do start to come down a bit towards the end, there’s actually a lot of sweetness in the story as it blossoms into the kind of family tale he’s been great about telling in past movies. Gone are some of the wonkier camera movements, and in their place are some one-shots that ingeniously play with the passage of time. Unlike his other movies that often start bad and stay bad, here Shyamalan does more ebbing and flowing. Focus is derailed by chaos, which makes way for clarity and even some warmth.
The fact is, some people may like everything I’ve described. They may thrive on the absurd chaos as incident after incident piles up. If everything I described above sounds like exactly what you need, and are looking for the next film to watch while on numerous substances with friends — then suit up and dive in. But I can in no way recommend it to anyone else looking for genuine tension or even a great Shyamalan twist (I actually found the ending here almost too predictable). Too much of it is too maddening to get anything substantial out of it, and it may end up being one of the more divisive movies of the year. But for Shyamalan, that’s quite the feat. A man who has spent his career making plenty of commercial efforts (of varying quality), he’s made one that feels like it was meant for a specific crowd willing to dive headfirst into that sea of inexplicable madness and swept up in all the turmoil that comes with it.