REVIEW – ‘Old’ dances between ingeniously artsy and bafflingly odd

You have to feel for a director whose first major film earned six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, scored over $600 million at the worldwide box office, and delivered one of the greatest twists in the history of cinema. For the last two decades, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has been desperately attempting to recapture the lightning in a bottle of 1999’s pop culture phenomenon The Sixth Sense with varied results. While there have been the mild highs of films like Signs and Split, there have also been the crushing lows of disasters like The Happening and Lady in the Water.

It’s easy to understand why most critics approach a new Shyamalan project with immense trepidation. We want the magic, terror, and surprise we felt back in ’99 but brace ourselves for another terrible disappointment. It gives me no satisfaction to say his latest falls into the latter. While the terrifically ingenious premise of Old suggests we’re in for something special, the film itself is a calamity of ghastly dialogue, irritating and underdeveloped characters, and stylistic choices that border on the ridiculous.

Loosely based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, Old introduces us to a young family in dire need of a tropical vacation. The tension between Guy (Gael García Bernal) and his wife, Prisca (Vicky Krieps) is inescapable, compounded by their desperate attempts to keep a secret from their 11-year-old daughter, Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six-year-old son, Trent (Nolan River). After Prisca stumbled upon an internet advertisement for the luxurious Anamika Resort, she’s booked a trip for the entire family in an attempt to escape their troubles.

Shortly after arriving at the retreat, the suspiciously helpful resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) recommends a day trip to a dazzling private beach he reserves purely for “certain guests.” Joining the family are smarmy doctor Charles (Rufus Sewell), his much younger wife, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their six-year-old daughter, Kara (Kyle Bailey), and his elderly mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) plus husband and wife duo Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird).

At first glance, the group are impressed by the secluded cove’s pristine sand, sparkling blue waters, and an imposing rock formation that encircles the entire coastline. But the peace and quiet of their idyllic day out is soon shattered when they begin to realise the beach is causing them to all inexplicably age rapidly. Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie), Trent (Alex Wolff), and Kara (Eliza Scanlen) soon morph into young teenagers while the older members begin to form wrinkles and sprout grey hairs. With seemingly no escape from the isolated beach, the group quickly realise their entire life will soon be reduced to just one day.

Shyamalan is a filmmaker who is consistently entirely committed to the often absurd nature of his plots and Old is no different. You have to admire his dedication and determination to such an outlandish narrative. If only he knew how to make this one really sing. The idea of a group of doomed souls literally watching their lives slip away is fascinating but the end result is ultimately rather vacuous and hollow. Shyamalan wastes little time plonking his victims into this horrific situation but it’s at the sacrifice of any shred of character development. We’ve barely met this cast of misfit families before we’re being asked to care about the terrifying plight they’re unwittingly trapped within.

A horror/thriller can only truly succeed if an audience gives half a damn about at least one or two of its main characters. But when practically the entire roster of characters features genuinely insufferable people, it’s impossible to sympathise with the ghastly circumstances they’ve found themselves in. In the early stages of the film, there are flickers of an engaging familial drama centred on an initially likeable family attempting to reconnect in the face of an uncertain future. Yet, Shyamalan quickly throws that concept out the window and presents little more than a group of people flailing desperately about a beach and occasionally yelling at each other for 90 minutes.

We do learn the occasional tidbit about these characters’ lives and backstories, but it’s all presented through some of the most atrocious dialogue you will hear this year. Almost every line is written in a woefully stilted fashion and it’s genuinely uncomfortable watching typically great actors like Bernal, Krieps, and Sewell saddled with the unfortunate task of delivering such clumsy, expository words. It’s bad enough this ensemble is handed unlikeable, paper-thin characters with nothing remotely interesting about them to sink their teeth into, but their performances become even more wooden as they admirably attempt to recite Shyamalan’s awkward writing.

It’s a crime terrific young actors Wolff, McKenzie, and Scanlen are entirely wasted in such tragically underwritten roles. As newly-formed teenagers with the personalities of preschoolers, Wolff and Scanlen are at least initially gifted with something curious to play with. But it seems the beach must age their soul along with their body, as it’s not long before they’re both merely acting like young adults. It’s never explained, so we’re forced to just roll with it. And it may be petty to point this out, but the fact the childrens’ clothes still fit them after they race through puberty in a few hours is just as incomprehensible and silly.

Thankfully, Old is not a total trainwreck. At a brisk 108 minutes, the film rarely lags and keeps your interest throughout. There is an aura of dread hovering over practically every scene and an unrelenting level of tension and claustrophobia that can be palpable at times. Shyamalan knows how to craft the occasional shock, especially two particularly ghastly death scenes that may long linger in your mind. But his stylistic choices constantly dance between ingeniously artsy and bafflingly odd. The cinematography of Mike Gioulakis is often framed in wildly unexpected ways and whether this is high art or a pointless bag of magic tricks is hard to determine. Extreme close-ups and strange angles abound and part of me suspects it’s merely to distract you from the film’s many foibles.

And then there’s the trademark Shyamalan climactic twist. As anticipated, there’s a big reveal waiting in the wings that I naturally can’t discuss, which is a mighty shame because it’s here where the film actually shines. The third act explores some fascinating themes related to morals and ethics that you’ll wish were permeating throughout the rest of the film. It wouldn’t have followed the traditional Shyamalan formula, but Old could have been a far more interesting film had the information uncovered in the final stretch been known right from the outset. It also wouldn’t have forced Shyamalan into a corner with how he staged proceedings.

When all is said and done, Old is just a tragic, unfortunate mess. There’s a brilliant film hiding in here somewhere, but it’s obscured by strange direction choices and a screenplay without any focus or depth and some of the worst dialogue you will ever hear. Old isn’t horrifying enough to call it a horror movie. Nor is it anywhere near thrilling enough to declare it a thriller. It yearns to explore notions of life and death but disappointingly abandons that in favour of tormenting a group of ill-fated individuals for no conceivable purpose. Maybe you’ll walk away from this film appreciating the preciousness of time, but you’re more likely to leave the cinema scratching your head at everything you’ve just witnessed.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abbey Lee, Aaron Pierre, Alex Wolff, Embeth Davidtz, Eliza Scanlen, Emun Elliott, Kathleen Chalfant, Thomasin McKenzie
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Ashwin Rajan, Marc Bienstock
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis
Production Design: Charles Wood
Costume Design: Jany Temime
Editor: Brett M. Reed
Music: Trevor Gureckis

Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Date: 22nd July 2021 (Australia)