Published on July 24th, 2021 | by Dan Nicholls0
The man with one of the most inconsistent careers in Hollywood, M. Night Shyamalan is back with another thriller. Not surprisingly, Old is mostly inconsistent.
Few directors are a brand unto themselves but The Sixth Sense was M. Night Shyamalan’s Jaws and therefore his subsequent projects were anticipated and scrutinized intensely. Most audiences and critics kept watching and hotly anticipating, up to a point. It was probably around The Lady in the Water that it all fell off (hell, I haven’t even seen the whole thing). Many hard lessons learned brought Shyamalan back humbled and low-key; it was like he re-focused his energy and zen’d out a bit. The box office returns for his hat trick of The Visit, Split, and Glass proved the change in his approach paid off in waves.
Good things come in threes so here comes Old to bring the man back down again, sadly. But damned if he isn’t putting his energy into the whole thing! The premise, if you’ve seen the trailers none of this is a spoiler, is high concept and an immediate hook: a family on vacation find themselves trapped on a beach with a group of strangers where everyone begins to rapidly age beyond their control. A kid who was once six looks like a real teen in a matter of minutes and a perfectly healthy elderly woman kicks the bucket before she can catch a tan.
At the heart of the story is Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), a married couple baffled over the change in their children (played for the majority of the runtime by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie). Their fellow beachmates are a mixed back of broadly drawn caricatures – indeed, Night is best when he focuses in on a smaller group instead of an ensemble. Time marches on, things get much weirder, and the execution becomes just as confused as the characters themselves. All mysteries lead somewhere and you can bet there’s a twist along the way but the journey is one hell of a messy ride.
Say what you want about Glass (some idiotic decisions aside, it is overall more thoughtful than given credit for and its exciting sequences are few but crackerjack entertainment), it was at least coherent and consistent. The chaotic jumble of hodgepodge ingredients in Old is baffling, it’s like the filmmaker regressed back to The Happening. Some moments in Old really are as bad as anything in that 2008 crapterpiece. And yet there are several very strong sequences or moments that show glimpses of that Signs type of magical suspense. But those trips to the Happening-land style of filmmaking are enough to make you feel sick to your stomach.
Yeah there’s a twist and yeah, it’s a letdown but it’s in line with Shyamalan’s sensibilities, for better or worse (it is for worse, though). There are more of the man’s worst tendencies present than there are of his actual masterful touches. Old is meant to amplify the universal fear of aging and the opportunity is missed to say anything at all, to develop any real emotional connection with any character, or to leave us with anything of substance to reflect upon. This is yet another example of why sometimes directors don’t need to only shoot scripts that they’ve written. If a different mind had shared screenplay responsibilities then perhaps he could’ve focused his skill as a visual storyteller a bit better. There are too many moments in Old that make you question what justified or influenced these decisions. You can’t craft a good horror if people momentarily laugh at how ineptly made it is.
Beyond some actual quality high points, Old settles at best as “meh” and at worst as “take the camera away from this guy”. You can never fault M. Night Shyamalan for having ambition or for believing in himself – shit, we could use more filmmakers like that, actually. Even when he’s horribly misguided there’s still the feeling that he’s really trying his hardest. Opening up the doors to a more creatively collaborative approach next time could be the ticket to an unmitigated success. Or maybe he just needs to study his best works and put himself in that mindset again. Either way, the attempt is whiffed this time around.