An argument can be made that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is the most polarizing filmmaker working today. Arguments are made by his fans of how wonderfully creative he is while detractors will point to many of his shortcomings, resulting in some of the worst films of the millennium. But one thing can be said universally by everyone; the man simply knows how to get us talking about his movies, specifically the horror-thriller genre. His films like The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village, and Split wrapped audiences us in a web, with twists and turns only Shyamalan could bring. His other projects like The Lady in the Water, The Happening, and After Earth showed the world his limitations, thus proved to be disasters for many who saw them. And yet we still talk about them. Were they perfect films? No, but were they memorable theater going experiences? Absolutely. So with his new endeavor, Old, we find Shyamalan returning to the genre sweet spot within his career, using his inherent techniques to bring us yet again another imperfectly entertaining thrill ride.
Old follows Guy (Gael García Bernal), Prisca (Vicky Krieps), and their two young children, 11-year old Maddox and 6-year old Trent (played by Alexa Swinton and Nolan River). They are on a once in a lifetime vacation Prisca found online and are trying to enjoy one last family vacation before their lives change when they return home. We meet, mostly through scenes of the young children, a variety of characters we will spend time with throughout the film. One morning, they are invited by the hotel management to get exclusive access to a part of the resort that not many people get to use, a private beach for their lucky VIP guests. Taking up the offer, the family, along with various other guests, are transported to the beach, left for a fun day in the sun. But after a short amount of time on the beach, they discover a young woman’s body, leading the group wanting to return to the resort. But they can’t due to something blocking them as they try to leave, knocking out anyone who tries to escape. As everyone spends more time on the beach, the more they rapidly start to age, and succumb to various diseases and complications we face as we get older in life.
Like most of Shyamalan’s films, it’s a simple hook that gets you into the film. An obstacle stands in our protagonist’s way and we are coasting along to see if they can evade the dangers being presented. But within these simple stories, he can overcomplicate things or turn the seriousness of the thriller into a campy, sappy film no one wants to see. This can come across in how performances are portrayed, how the dialogue is written, and how the film can look from a visual standpoint. And while Old has all of those wild M. Night choices that leave you scratching your head, in the end, they lead to a surprisingly emotional conclusion. In a lot of ways, Old is a cousin to Signs, where the emotional core of both of these films lay waste to any nitpicky elements one might have with the overall film.
One reason why this film has these emotions is because Shyamalan is adapting this story from the graphic novel Sandcastle, which was given to him by his daughter. He’s always found inspiration in his family to make his projects (remember The Lady in the Water was based on a bedtime story for his daughters) because they mean the world to him. It drives him and motivates his passion for storytelling. This is his most personal film in years because he examines what we all fear in life, the end of our time here on this planet, the struggles to cope with aging, and having to leave behind your family when you’re not ready to. Through his heightened storytelling, we see characters aged at a constant rate, but oddly enough, it feels so grounded and real within those moments of chaos. He’s able to pack in the emotion of a parent seeing their child grow up too quickly before their eyes, going through a painful first love and break up, and even experience the loss of a parent. We get a wide range of human events over the course of a two-hour film and it’s tender in the end.
It will be understandable for many critics and audiences to look at the unconventional methods Shyamalan uses to get to these personal, emotional moments and see nothing more than a mess. On the surface, they might be right. But when you think about it a little, life is unconventional. It’s complicated and strange. Thus, the choices these characters make are no different probably than ones we would make and question later after they are done. Plus, Shyamalan casts an extraordinary group of actors led by Bernal, Krieps, with Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie (who play the teenage versions of the children), who commit to these roles in such a relatable, organic way that you buy into everything they are doing. As this family is changing and deteriorating, we see their bond grow stronger and tighter like most of us do within scary or life-altering moments. We cling to our loved ones because they are all we have, and this cast and director understand how to tap into that to make it all come together.
Shyamalan’s Old is one of the best films of his career. That may not mean much to some considering the up and down filmography he’s had, but it should be considered a win for a man who has been fighting so long to get back to a place where he isn’t considered a punch line. It’s nice to see he can still scare, shock, and engage audiences emotionally unlike anyone else working today. He’s his own brand in this business and hopefully, he can continue to make movies like this, even with all of his imperfections because it wouldn’t be an M. Night Shyamalan film without them.
Universal Pictures will release Old only in theaters on July 23.
Photo Credit: Phobymo/Universal Pictures