The best tool in the kit of the cinema of M. Night Shyamalan is his exquisite ear for a hook of high concept. I can imagine this writer/director plays like gangbusters in a bigwig Hollywood studio executive meeting, spinning very real old-fashioned gee-whiz storytelling gold for his captive audience. This one’s got a kid who sees dead people! This one’s about killer wind! This one’s about James McAvoy wearing slouchy sweaters and lisping! Pretty much every one of his films could be sold as an episode of a Twilight Zone type anthology program. It’s not explicitly the “twists” that he’s become so synonymous with, it’s his entire way of spitting yarns. They can be boiled down to their pitch swiftly and succinctly, for good and most decidedly for ill. After all, this is the man that came up with the idea “It’s five people trapped in an elevator, and one of them is the Devil.”
I’m not ragging on simplicity. Lean mean entertainment machines have their place in the world of movie-making, and when one of Shyamalan’s ideas land—like say that one about the kid who sees dead people—they plant their two feet on the floor and announce themselves proudly, and we all clap, happy to have been showmanshipped for two hours of our lives. Admirably, the man always swings for the fences. But it’s a dangerous high-wire game, more prone to spectacular goofiness than most, and Shyamalan’s latest flick Old (based off Frederick Peeters’s graphic novel Sandcastle) manages to straddle both sides of the Shyamalan equation. It’s got one foot on the floor and one foot turned up and crammed deep and desperately down its own throat at the exact same moment.
The second-best tool in the kit of the cinema of M. Night Shyamalan has always been casting. (Just think upon all the extremely talented actors who have worked with him across the years and blow your dang mind.) Old has got doozy after doozy in that department: Gael Garcia Bernal and Phantom Thread stunner Vicky Krieps play our main couple, who’ve brought their teenaged daughter and pre-teen son to a tropical resort (and alongside The White Lotus rich people are having a hell of a time at their fancy tropical resorts this summer) for some R&R. Other guests sunning include Rufus Sewell and Abbey Lee as a doctor and his trophy wife; Nikki Amuka-Bird and Ken Leung (whose presence can’t help but recall echoes of Lost in this precise nightmare-paradise context) as a therapist and nurse who embody ideas of Wellness; Aaron Pierre (recently seen on Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad) playing a rapper improbably named Mid-sized Sedan. Oh and be forewarned that yet again Shyamalan himself shows up in a vital role because he cannot help himself.
And that’s before I even get into the parade of actors playing the children, an admission that brings us to the High Concept that Shyamalan’s got in store for us with Old, and with that I give you a big ol’ spoiler warning. I won’t get too deep into the thicket of it, but it’s impossible to talk about this movie without at least giving away as much as the trailer gave away, which is that this mysterious island that this gang of disparate folks have found themselves on has a beach where time works wonky, making everybody age rapidly to the tune of entire lives lived in the span of a day, give or take. The kids walk around a corner and they’re grown like snap.
Is it more complicated than that? Both yes and no. Like most Shyamalan scripts, Old is at its absolute worst when it gets into the thicket of explaining. There are plot pretzels that the writer twists himself into across the span of three sentences. For instance, if “dead cells” like hair and fingernails don’t react to the beach’s confounding properties then why did we just watch a dead body disintegrate to dust after an hour? They only get worse the more Shyamalan speaks about them. Is there anyone who asks his characters to land such thuddingly broad exposition dumps as he?
Buried at the wizened little baby’s heart of Old is an actually lovely and moving rumination on the importance of cherishing every second of every day. Old works when it manages to brush aside all its explanatory bullshit and come-and-go wrinkle cascades, focusing down on the bones of its concept. It totally works. In those moments. He’s got actors that sell them, and I bought them, heart and soul. The older you get the more you watch of life slipping between your fingers like sand, the faster it gets, the more disappears every day. Memories, loved ones, big and small experiences—it can sometimes feel like we have been grabbed by the back of our pants and are being yanked away from everything we desperately reach out for. Life in the rearview.
In its stellar moments, and Shyamalan does land a few here, Old captures that dizzying feeling with visual panache and true emotional aplomb. You might not notice them until they’re halfway through but there are sequences shot in long takes by DP Mike Gioulakis. He’s worked with Shyamalan previously on Split and Glass and the series Servant, but who’s also shot stunners like It Follows and Us. Here, his camera races up and down the beach as a thousand dramatic crescendos are happening to the characters all at once; waves crashing on that beach, unstoppable, inevitable. The metaphor is there for Old, and its skeleton is sturdy and solid enough to support some of the silly extravagances that Shyamalan shovels over it.
But all of them? Oh, that’s a nope! I could probably write an entire dissertation about the eyeliner and lipstick-based aging process that they decided on for Abbey Lee’s character, for one. And there are diversions from the graphic novel that work and there are ones—like a third act reveal—that feel, well, not exactly pasted on…I will give Shyamalan credit that he seeds his so-called “twists” enough every time that they’re not entirely nonsensical. Still, it feels pretty extraneous to what we the audience actually give a damn about at that point. It all comes down to Shyamalan, for all the highs he’s capable of reaching, almost always finds ways of getting in his own way. Like distractingly casting himself in his movies every time, the man cannot help himself.
Old opens in theaters on July 23.
Image sources (in order of posting): Universal Pictures, Getty Images,