Friday, July 23, 2021

Review: OLD

 by Rob DiCristino

A hearty swing and miss.

Minor spoilers about Old’s ending ahead.

It’s hard to really argue with M. Night Shyamalan, you know? In the twenty-plus years since The Sixth Sense, the writer/director once heralded as “The Next Spielberg” has run the gamut of critical and commercial success, devolving through bold and imaginative thrillers (Unbreakable), bizarre, hubristic flops (The Happening), soulless franchise fare (After Earth), and then back again, finding his creative balance in recent years with mid-budget horror entries like Split. It’s the natural evolution of any creative life — hell, any human life, in general. Trial and error. Risk and reward. Though we may no longer trust Shyamalan to deliver the powerful, audience-pleasing blockbusters of years gone by, most movie lovers at least applaud his ambition, his unrelenting urge to create. It’s the fire that burns within Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, in Christopher Nolan and Spike Lee. They love movies and need to make them. In a culture dominated by IP, M. Night Shyamalan will always deserve — at the very least — our skeptical attention.
His latest effort is Old, an adaptation of Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters’ graphic novel, Sandcastle. Looking to ease the inevitable collapse of their marriage, Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Priscia (Vicky Krieps) take their children Trent and Maddox (played early on by Nolan River and Alexa Swinton) to an exotic resort with tickets acquired through a mysterious sweepstakes. They soon board a van (driven by Shyamalan, in his least subtle cameo ever) and head to an even more mysterious private beach. There, they meet Charles (Rufus Sewell), his wife, Chrystal (Abby Lee), their daughter, Kara (Mikaya Fisher), and Charles’ mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). After Trent finds a dead body in a nearby lagoon, the group runs into rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who claims to have been waiting for this young woman and seems genuinely saddened by her gruesome discovery. Before the accusations can really fly, however, the three children begin to rapidly age. A few years every half hour or so, it seems. Cue the real panic.

We’re then treated to perhaps Shyamalan’s most surreal, expressionistic work yet. By restricting his setting to this small beach (even The Village had more scope), the director relies on Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography to create depth, mood, and often a bit of narrative pacing, with new “versions” of the children being introduced to the audience through off-center framing, staccato edits, and extended takes that whip in 360-degree arcs from one character to another. The film’s visual language evolves as the characters’ mania increases — at times, the camera seems to be holding back from showing us something we very much want to see. Maybe it’s afraid? Maybe the film’s PG-13 rating precludes it from getting too graphic? Either way, Old employs a dizzying visual aesthetic that — though it pains me to say — may benefit from the big-screen treatment. There’s not much to Old’s plot, and not a ton of it makes any sense, and so much like its beach-horror sister film, The Shallows, it may be best to just let Old wash over you.
Trouble is, Old won’t let you. It’s constantly stopping and starting, shifting from obtuse scenes of expositional dialogue to startling images of horror at a moment’s notice. Characters are defined not by their behaviors, but by clearly-delineated physical or emotional ailments. Chrystal, for example, is vapid and has a calcium deficiency. Mid-Sized Sedan (Boy, do I hate that) is famous and has nosebleeds. Late arrival Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a psychologist who suffers from epileptic seizures. None has an interior life beyond these qualities, which becomes less of a problem as each is dispatched in a predictable order. These are talented actors, to be sure (Thomasin McKenzie fares particularly well as young adult Maddox), but they are given little latitude to define their characters. Instead, as the horrifying reality of their situation overtakes them, the members of this misbegotten band stammer archly through disconnected declarations like the cast of The Room in an Agatha Christie mystery.
That lack of cohesion makes Shyamalan’s dicey thematics even tougher to pin down. It’s hard enough to empathize with characters played by three or four different actors over the course of one film (Old ends up making a strong argument for Robert De Niro playing his twenty-five year-old self in The Irishman), but that connection is even more difficult when those characters feel nothing like themselves from beat to beat. An adult Kara, for example, gets pregnant, gives birth, and loses her child in the span of minutes, a development never commented on in subsequent scenes. In a middle bit, Charles operates on Priscia, removing a tumor the size of a cantaloupe from her torso. That tumor provided early tension between Priscia and her husband, but it’s forgotten soon after the wound miraculously closes. Perhaps Shyamalan is commenting on the impermanence of time here. Perhaps he’s lamenting the ravages of age and insisting that the squabbles that crush relationships fade when looking at life’s big picture.
And that’s all well and good. Shyamalan is certainly capable of making that argument and telling that story. But Old isn’t it, folks. Old is too concerned with manufacturing the kind of shock value impossible to organically cultivate in a film so neutered and unscary. Old bounces incoherently from one jarring moment to the next in a vain attempt to mimic the stark compositions found in the cinema of Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. Both filmmakers were surely influenced by Shyamalan; he should not be riding their coattails. He should not be serving up tepid, uninspired final acts that — loyal to the source material or not — spend so much time trying to ground the fantastic in some kind of objective reality that they strip the entire endeavor of any drama or pathos. “Ah, I see,” the audience is apparently expected to say. “This is not an allegory exploring the finite nature of human experience and celebrating the emotional bonds between families. That one guy just did a bad thing! Boy he was bad, I guess! Sort of?” Cinema!


  1. I've read some stellar reviews, including here in France, from respected medias, and... I can't wrap my head around it. Have we not seen the same movie? Are there two Olds out there?? I sure would love to see the one these people are describing. As for the one I HAVE seen, your review is spot on, Rob. Pretty much nothing worked for me. I could at least appreciate the movie's "lunacy" if it didn't feel so damn... tepid.

  2. Does it say something that nearly two full days have passed and I still don't know how to feel about this movie? It felt like it tried too hard in some areas(camera work) and not enough in others(dialogue) while still being strange enough to be compelling and unlike anything I've seen recently.