Principal Cast : Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Abbey Lee, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuk-Bird, Eliza Scanlen, Aaron Pierre, Gustaf Hammarsten, Kathleen Chalfant, Kailen Jude, Francesca Eastwood, Matthew Shear.
Following his fairly public fall from the spotlight, Hollywood wunderkind director M Night Shyamalan has crafted an almighty comeback in recent years with legitimate box office successes. Once touted as the next Spielberg following his breakout film The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan’s career derailed after the critical drubbing garnered by The Lady In The Water, which was followed up by the even less successful The Happening, and then two major failures in The Last Airbender and After Earth. It would be 2015’s The Visit, a ow-budget independent film he shot in secret, that would see Hollywood start to take his calls again, leading to the filmmaker being granted a budget to make not one but two sequels to Unbreakable: Split and Glass, both of which saw Bruce Willis return to the properties. With Old, Shyamalan takes a setup back into The Village territory, as a straight-up mystery box narrative told through the eyes of those within it, unraveling a nerve-wracking and terrifying beachside horror story straight out of a Stephen King or Dean R Koontz novel.
A family arrives at an island resort to spend a few days relaxing. The father, Guy Cappa (Gae Garcia Berna) and his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are ostensibly there for the kids, although they have been having marital issues due to a life-threatening illness Prisca is hiding from her children, Trent (Emun Elliot and Alex Wolff) and Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie). They are informed about a secret, hidden beach further up the coast by the hotel manager, and are taken there by bus; their arrival at the beach is heralded by the appearance of a mysterious man, rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), whose girlfriend has recently gone missing in the waters off the coast. Along with the Cappas, another group are present; Charles (Rufus Sewell), a surgeon, and his wife Chrystal (Abby Lee) and their daughter Kara (Eliza Scanlen), along with Charles’ elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). As their time on the beach progresses, a series of increasingly distressing events occur which indicate that time is passing extremely quickly; the children all age into teenagers in a matter of hours, a dead body decomposes impossibly quickly, and Charles’ mother and their dog, both elderly, pass away within moments of each other. Their attempts to escape the beach prove fruitless, as the shifting velocity of time causes each one of them to pass out. Another couple, nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and his epilepsy-afflicted wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) come up with several alternatives to their predicament and attempt to help everyone escape; to no avail. The whole time, the group is being watched by a mysterious figure atop a nearby escarpment.
There are three things crucial to creating a great mystery box movie. The first, the setup, is to show you something ordinary. A family on holiday is pretty ordinary. The second thing is to make this scenario do something extraordinary; in the case of Old, it is having everyone who steps into that beach rapidly age up, with no apparent explanation as to why. The third thing, known as “the prestige”, is to reveal a greater truth or mitigate the issues caused by the second thing, and it would be an inarguable fact that the Prestige needs to be strongly developed. The payoff to a mystery box scenario needs to work, otherwise you just get another The Happening. Yeesh. Is the rapid passing of time idea a man-made, natural or alien occurrence? How are these characters linked, if at all? How do you escape an island beach if you can’t climb the sheer cliff face behind or swim through the crashing waves ahead? And who is the sadist watching from afar as people die in the space of one day on the luxurious sand? All these questions are answered, but I doubt they’ll satisfy all who venture into Old’s intriguing but underwhelming tableau.
So, does Old’s mystery box setup work? Partially; the premise is very simple, the characters are all interesting in their own right, and Shyamalan makes great use of the horrors of rapid aging to a degree I hadn’t considered possible just from reading the logline. Putting a group of relatively ordinary people into an extraordinary situation, and then twisting the thumbscrews until everyone’s emotions are at fever pitch, is classic horror film-making – it should be noted the film isn’t exceptionally graphic, but Shyamalan understands that the imagination is a far greater storytelling method than explicit visuals ever could be, meaning he intimates rather than specifies some of the more horrifying themes at play here – and Old works very well in this respect. Unfortunately, the film’s grand payoff, the “why are they put on the beach by malevolent forces”, isn’t very strong. In fact, it’s among the weaker “oh, so that’s why this is happening” resolutions in Shyamalan’s storied career. The fact he even chooses to reveal the mechanics behind the plot at the end is strange; had Old simply ended without the explainer, with maybe the final couple of characters just dying at the end, it would have been a far more sinister film, but I guess the director just has to show us all how clever he is trying to be. If it worked for The Village or Signs, it has to work here, right? I guess, but the twist at the end isn’t really that surprising or shocking.
In terms of the milieu Old is very effective. The photography by cinematographer Michel Gioulakis is clear and bright, not exactly standard “horror film” style but one that, with the unique framing techniques Shyamalan employs, works very, very well. There are quite a few extended long takes in Old that really give the characters a sense of place within not only the location but also the plot, interweaving combative panic, mournful solemnity and picture-perfect beachside tropicana to splendid effect. Every frame of the film pays off the characters arcs throughout, as you might expect from a visual stylist such as M Night, and he makes great use of the film’s widescreen aspect to keep things in corners, in the background and just out of the edge of frame that continue to inform the viewer of ongoing narrative subplots. It’s the same clever type of camerawork Shyamalan has employed previously, using focus pulls, panning and zooming to elicit a heightened emotion from the viewer, and in terms of a virtuosos sense of cinema, Old can’t be faulted.
Performances across the board are generally great, with the film finding a nice groove early and settling into gradually reveal bits about our characters’ lives as it progresses. The film revolves around the Cappa family, but at no point do we ever feel like they’re hogging the limelight; everyone here gets a chance to shine in various ways, either through shock and awe or a gentle character beat. Rufus Sewell’s schizophrenic doctor role is at first somewhat antagonistic, before it becomes utterly tragic. Vicky Krieps’ character’s inoperable tumor inexplicably becomes operable once the tumor grows to the size of a small child. Epileptic Patricia, first seem sprawled on the floor of the resort having a grand mal seizure, occupies a large portion of the film’s hopeful third act giving us a sense of possible salvation, while her on-screen husband, played by Ken Leung, forms a trio of masculine take-charge seniority with Gael Garcia Bernal’s understated Guy and Sewell’s more rapacious Charles. It’s the kids of the film who do some of the best work – young Trent and Maddox Cappa, who start the film as young children, before ageing into pre-teens and then young adults (in the form of a great Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie), offer the most horrifying glimpses of rapid ageing on film, with their hormones running wild, a brief teen pregnancy (with non-family member Kara, played by Eliza Scanlen) and eventual transition into middle age (Embeth Davidz has a role late in the movie) making for the most traumatic aspects of Old’s rising tension.
Old is a nice little horror thriller that works for almost the entirety of its running time. The third act “twist”, now a default for any film directed by M Night Shyamalan, is a disappointment and unsatisfying resolution to an otherwise intriguing premise and setup, but the general story, acting and production of the film is first class. I’m not entirely pleased that the director himself plays an on-screen role at one point, trying to emulate Hitchcock’s continued glimpses in his own movies, because it detracts from the rest of the story, but this is a minor quibble and should not dissuade you from checking out the movie. Old is squarely middle-tier from Shyamalan, and will probably not have the same cultural cache as either Sixth Sense or Signs, but it’s well worth a look and if you can guess the resolution’s jarring plot twist before it occurs you’ll be doing better than me.