Just by moving a camera, M. Night Shyamalan can turn a sight of palm trees into something frightening. Old opens with fronds dancing in front of a lovely sky before cutting to a traveling family on the ground below, as though the people are already an afterthought, acting as fodder for the high concept horror that awaits them. On a granular level, Shyamalan has always been fantastic, designing shots that put you in the heads of the characters, or, in the case of this latest picture, firmly outside of it.
The Sixth Sense careens down the corridor in sympathetic panic after a fleeing Haley Joel Osment, only to turn around and show us what he sees — the bathrobed ghost following him — before closing up shop. Signs clings to Joaquin Phoenix’s face, changing with him as he tries to get a better look at the extraterrestrial on the roof, only for the thing to leap off-screen, out of sight of the actors and that subjective lens, leaving rustling corn and a creaking swing in its wake.
Old, on the other hand, uses a recurring motif of the camera sweeping horizontally across the beach where the people are trapped and treats their features with the same apathy as the scenery. It takes a while to accept how much of a disappointment the film is, trapped between rigorous exercise and metaphor for the ephemeral essence of time. It doesn’t care about its characters but tries to behave as if it does in the end, in an obvious display of nerve. They’re scarcely people — more of a hodgepodge of professional titles, with Trent (Nolan River), the family’s 6-year-old child, having the pleasant habit of asking everyone he meets what their name and professions are. Jarin (Ken Leung) is a nurse, whereas Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a psychotherapist. Aaron Pierre portrays a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan, while Rufus Sewell portrays Charles, a psychiatrist. Chrystal (Abbey Lee), Charles’s wife, isn’t given the opportunity to identify her job, however, an honest description would be “trophy wife.” Kara (Kyle Bailey), their daughter, is with them, as is Charles’ mother, Agnes (Katherine Hepburn).
Trent’s elder sister, Maddow (Alexa Swinton), is 11 and not quite working age (the kids are played by other actors as they get older), but their parents, Guy (Gael Garca Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) discuss their occupations like some people discuss their astrological signs. “ You can’t stop thinking about the past! You work at a museum, for crying out loud!” Guy rants at Prisca early on and later explains his worldview to another character by stating that he assesses risk as an actuary.
If the objective were merely to murder off the characters one by one, this picture-book-simple approach of presenting an ensemble would feel less clunky, but Old is insistent on making the audience worry about its main four characters, and how Guy and Prisca have been teetering on the edge of divorce. The beach vacation is supposed to be a three-day break from thinking about the couple’s inevitable split and Prisca’s recently discovered benign stomach tumor.
A day after arriving at the island resort the manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) offers the family the option to visit a quiet beach on the adjoining nature preserve, which he claims he only gives to guests he likes. From the minute the impossible-to-like Charles and his family enter the van, it should be obvious that something is wrong, yet the party goes to the beach with the help of their driver, portrayed by Shyamalan himself. The role is definitely a kind of directorial stand-in, as he is responsible for leading the victims onto the dangerous beach and later monitoring them from afar. Despite the film’s self-admitted sadism, in which the beach’s residents slowly realize they’re aging at a rate of two years per hour, there’s a timidity to it that makes it aggravating. Old is based on Sandcastle, a more ambiguous graphic novel by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, and the film never reconciles its drive for body horror with its late impulse to have its characters overcome their differences and ponder on what’s really important.
All of the actors appear to be open to embarking on a more strange adventure. The majority of the cast finds a way to get through a script that treats them like sand toys on the beach, pushing them around before the tide washes them away. Sewell’s perplexed menace, McKenzie’s genuine terror (which she captures the best, by far, recognizing she’s in a horror film more than any of the others), and Bernal and Krieps’ grounded center are all standouts.
Shyamalan and his partners handle their tone better than they have in years, despite the fact that he frequently veers right when he should clearly go left. Yes, the conversation is clumsy and nearly exclusively expositional about their predicament and attempts to flee it, but that’s a feature, not a flaw. Old is supposed to have an exaggerated, surreal tone, which Shyamalan generally achieves, thanks to some of his usual cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ best work yet. The duo is continuously experimenting with perception and forced POV, effortlessly sliding their camera up and down the beach as if it were rushing to keep up with all the happenings. Some of the framing in this piece is brilliant.
Unfortunately, the film comes to a halt when it tries to provide some rational answers and connect dots that didn’t need to be joined in the first place. There’s a far stronger version of Old that finishes more ambiguously, allowing audiences to leave the theater pondering themes rather than figuring out exactly what happened. Many people talk about Shyamalan’s ending sequences, and I found the ones in Old to be some of his most perplexing because they seem to contradict what the movie does best. Old is fascinating and engrossing when his characters are genuinely trying to escape the passage of time, as people do when their children grow up too quickly or they receive a death diagnosis.
There’s an imaginatively horrible death, an emergency operation, and a shockingly expedited pregnancy, but there’s also a lot of protracted, monotonous freak-outs from characters who don’t have the depth to warrant them. Shyamalan, who has been working his way back toward bigger budget productions since coming out of movie jail with The Visit in 2015, feels torn between the more emotionally considered films he used to create and the leaner, meaner ones he’s done more recently. Old’s filmmaking can’t compensate for the fact that he’s vacillating between the two areas of his career, unwilling to commit to either.