The set up for M. Night Shyamalan’s new genre-bending, survival thriller, Old, is easy to compare against his buzziest, most popular canon. Returning to his twisty, knotty roots in films like The Village and Signs, Old presents us with a group of mismatched characters secluded on a beach where horrible things start to happen, and like an actual character in this movie, Shyamalan observes from a distance with a blank stare and a metaphorical camera.
Based on the Swiss graphic novel, Sandcastle, by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, Old mainly follows a single family on vacation to a remote island. The family may break apart within the near future, so mom (Vicky Krieps) and dad (Gael García Bernal) have decided to give the kids one last vacation before everything changes forever.
Together with two other families carrying their own baggage to the cove, everyone quickly notices something is amiss. A dead body turns up. A man who has been sitting on the beach for hours starts suffering from an endless nosebleed. Giving anything else away probably robs too much of the fun, and Old needs all the amusement it can get.
There’s fresh material to be found in Old.
On the one hand, the film accomplishes something few filmmakers can hang their hat on, and that’s a full-blown commitment to original, absurdist horror. The type of filmmaking that screams, Why isn’t anyone else making movies like this?—usually followed up quite promptly by, Oh, that’s why.
There are more than enough sequences here to traumatize unsuspecting viewers, and plenty of existential questions it builds with the foundation of sand. In other words, it’s flimsy despite how substantial it wants to appear. A touching moment between husband and wife earns itself all the goodwill waiting to be swept up by a tide of stilted dialogue and Shyamalan’s trademark “first draft” syndrome, where it appears no one was either able or willing to challenge this script’s dialogue.
Perhaps Old will still work for some because at least its surrealist vibe matches up tonally to the actual plot. Though it’s hard to watch these characters flounder in the face of problems most would be able to solve rather easily. To the point where one character even suggests something so obvious and easy to carry out, it’s remarkably forgotten about barely one scene later. Not long after, characters desperately make escape attempts that have already been established to be futile, so it’s a dull waiting game for the audience to let the film catch up to them.
Twist your expectations.
Many will wonder if Old has a twist, and others will insist that even revealing the existence of a twist is spoiling too much. For this film, that’s not really a danger. Shyamalan doesn’t always incorporate a third act explanation, especially in many of his recent efforts. But like in The Happening and to some extent, his superior film The Visit, Old ties up its loose ends in a fairly convoluted fashion. But it’s perhaps a bit more satisfying in the moment, long before your brain has enough time to process all the flaws and inconsistencies.
Ultimately, it’s hard to pinpoint why Shyamalan made this film and what meaning he hopes to impart with it. The bonds of family and timeless trials of getting older certainly come to mind. There’s also much to be made about how our work and occupation don’t do much to define our identity in a true crisis. But once the twist rears its expected head, the destination, the true purpose of this film beyond shock value, seems impossible to see. Nothing really connects the emotional journey of these characters with the hourglass cage they’ve stumbled into. Perhaps the real twist is that we still expect anything different from this filmmaker.
Old opens in theaters July 23. Watch the full trailer here.