Over the course of his career, M. Night Shyamalan has had his shares of ups and downs. At first he was Hollywood’s wunderkind, the modern master of suspense. Then he started to taking big chances with his expanded clout, and suddenly Tinsel Town’s young hit machine couldn’t buy a hit. Part of it was that Shyamalan was taking big swings and missing, and part of it was people just loved seeing the young whiz kid get taken down a peg or two. While I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fans of the films by M. Night Shyamalan, I do respect him as filmmaker. In an era where familiarity with intellectual property is the driving force behind most studio films, Shyamalan has continually taken wild gambles as a storyteller. You may not like the results, but Shyamalan rarely plays it safe.
Now M. Night Shyamalan returns with his latest film Old, an adaptation of the Swiss graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. Old is the best film by M. Night Shyamalan in ages, a masterfully crafted thriller that is consistently captivating as pulls you deeper and deeper into this twisted nightmare of advanced aging.
Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and their two children Trent (Nolan River) and Maddix (Alexa Swinton) arrive at a luxurious beachside resort. Immediately you get the sense that something is off with this place. It’s obvious that Shyamalan is setting up the audience. He’s aware you know the premise and isn’t going to try and misdirect you from the start. During this brief introduction, Shyamalan establishes a number of story threads for this family, from marital friction to unresolved medical issues. At the morning during breakfast, the hotel manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) invites the family to a secluded beach, offering a ride and accommodations for the family.
Except, the beach isn’t quite as secluded as they’ve been led to believe as their family is soon joined by other guests at the hotel. There’s Charles (Rufus Sewell), a doctor; Chrystal (Abbey Lee), his trophy wife; Kara (Kyle Bailey), their daughter; and Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), Charles’ mother. Soon they’re joined by the couple of Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a nurse and psychiatrist, respectively. Also on the beach in complete solitude is the rapper Mid-Size Sedan (Aaron Pierre). It’s not long before strange things start happening, culminating in the horrific discovery of a dead body in the water. Some suspect foul play. Others suspect an accident. However, they just can’t make it out through the path they came, some kind of cranial pressure causes anyone who tries to leave passed out on the beach’s sand.
Everything up to this point is Shyamalan building a growing sense of unease. But then he has to kick in with the film’s premise and unleash all the horror inherent to the concept. The people on the beach start aging rapidly, at a rate of about two years for every hour. Soon, young Trent (Alex Wolff) and Maddix (Thomasin McKenzie) have grown, reaching their teenage years in a matter of hours. Things only continue to escalate in more and more gruesome and horrific ways as the mystery builds alongside the tension.
Let’s get this part out of the way: Yes, there’s a big reveal towards the film’s conclusion. No, it is not a twist. A twist makes you rethink everything that came before it. A reveal merely presents the solution to a mystery. With Old, Shyamalan is peppering the audience with all these little tidbits of information. He’s not setting things up to pull the rug from under the audience. He’s giving you all the clues.
You know what helps makes Old such a compelling movie? All of the characters are smart. These are capable people and they’re able to share ideas about the unexplained phenomenon going on, a brilliant mix of exposition and character development. When things go bad, it’s not because some character makes some bewildering decision that only serves to push the plot towards a confrontation. Things go bad here because its an unwinnable nightmare scenario.
Start to finish, Old features some of the best directorial work Shyamalan’s career. It’s a real testament to his talents that a PG-13 horror film can feature so many genuinely ghastly scenes of death and deformity that are so hauntingly effective without the aid of geysers spewing gore. The fact is that Old is a brutal movie. These characters are put through one of the most horrific concepts ever conceived and Shyamalan doesn’t pull a single punch.
There are a few minor nitpicks that I have with Old, but none of my issues were the film are enough to detract from the overall experience. As happens in his films, sometimes the characters speak in a kind of awkward, stilted dialogue that sneaks its way into Shyamalan’s films. My biggest issue with the film was its ending. I’m not talking about the film’s reveal, which is quite effective. It’s just after the reveal there are about three or four would-be endings before the film finally ends. The entire film is just incredibly efficient and effective without an ounce of fat, and then at the conclusion the film seems to run on for about 10 minutes too long. Again, I must reemphasize that these issues are incredibly minor in the overall scheme of Old.
Throughout his hits and misses, it has still always been apparent that M. Night Shyamalan is a talented filmmaker. Old is the best combination of script and direction that Shyamalan has delivered since Unbreakable. Old is fantastic because as a storyteller Shyamalan isn’t trying to do too much trickery. He maintains the mystery and builds suspense without making the central question the driving point behind every scene. Old is one of the high points of M. Night Shyamalan’s rollercoaster career, and it features a truly clever cameo by the director. I have a feeling that Old will age like fine wine.
A relentless compelling horror-thriller, M. Night Shyamalan’s Old represents the filmmaker’s best film in age, delivering a brutally terrifying nightmare that sticks with you well after its haunting conclusion.