It seems fitting for Old to mark my return to the theaters. I have lost all track of time since my graduation from university. And despite all of my best attempts, I cannot seem to find a way to make the present moment last any longer than what feels like a second. People often tell me I look older, but I don’t feel any older. I am not sure if I even understand what it means to grow older. And yet, I have to reconcile myself to the fact that after a certain age past childhood, our lives stand blankly before us. As vulnerable as all those grains of sand on the beach, we find ourselves caught and forever lost to the ebb of the tides.
With inspiration from Pierre Oscar Lévy’s graphic novel Sandcastle, M. Night Shyamalan’s Old finds horror in tropical paradise, where vacations seemingly end as quickly as they come. How unfortunate that fun can spin the hands of the clock faster than boredom’s idle turn. How unfair for our married parents, Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) , hoping to make amends for their young children, Trent (Alex Wolffe) and Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie) at a beach resort. But they don’t have time enough at last. After being escorted to a private beach with a few other strangers and families, they slowly start to unravel the bitter irony of all sweet escapes. You see, Shyamalan has taken this idea of relative time to its literal extremes. Our characters may not outlive a single day on this island.
Whether you love him or hate him, we cannot deny Shyamalan his status as a reluctant provocateur. Simply put, audiences never know what to think when it comes to his projects. And film is all the better for it. There are so many conventional standards of quality in filmmaking, especially now of all times that we have reached a zeitgeist of polished, ready-made I.P. But not once have I ever felt that Shyamalan has lost his knack for uncompromising storytelling. He represents all the virtues of outsider culture, despite having all the recognition behind his name.
Regardless of how you feel about The Village, Signs, Glass, or even The Happening, I would argue that these stories all feel earnest in their purpose, sincere in intention. And for that reason, some of his most vocal dissenters work themselves up into frenzy. They argue that Shyamalan has creatively strangled himself among his twists, self-sabotaging himself at any chance he may get for a glass of water, a cinematic universe. However, they don’t realize that genuine artists must see their compulsions to the very end. These narrative twists are not incidental to Shyamalan’s identity as a filmmaker. Instead, they must be seen as intrinsic to his personhood. In our post-modern milieu, who could’ve ever possibly foreseen this authenticity of filmmaking dazzling so much more boldly than the artifice of irony or self-seriousness? I could not have. I was not ready for Old.
Don’t expect your profound expectations for a high-concept thriller about the existential dread of aging to be met. Rather, Shyamalan, troublemaker as he is, takes a cruder delight once the hijinks ensue. You can feel it all for yourself at times with his wobbly handheld, where he eats up all the action whole to disconcerting, immediate effect. It all feels kinetic. In the moment. A desperate, unmannered attempt at capturing the whole truth before it is lost to time. Sometimes these compositions themselves feel incomplete when characters speak to one another. Always a sliver of a person out of frame during dialogue. But it does not reflect any mark of an amateur filmmaker. If anything, it suggests that Shyamalan himself is fighting against time too.
After all, nine of our characters’ lifetimes are being condensed with each passing hour. Not only to the 24 that make up a single day, but to 108 minutes of runtime. And we feel this urgency, particularly when Old follows the familiar mechanics of a coming-of-age story with Maddox and Trent. Despite our familiarity with this sub-genre, nothing can prepare us for the absurdity of this sort of accelerated sexual development, where bodies mature much faster than minds can collect experiences and reasoning. In short, it feels so perverse of biology to trap us at the most vulnerable moments in our lives to a body that does not reflect our mental state. Honestly, I cannot recall the last time I have ever felt so disturbed from the ideas presented in a horror film, much less from a major studio production.
And it all falls back on two of my favorite actors, McKenzie and Wolff, both benefitting from Shyamalan’s stilted dialogue to deliver self-assured performances of arrested development. To put it bluntly, it all feels so wrong, so uncanny, for actors in their twenties to act without emotional restraint or nuance like children would. Through all the sniffles and awkward mannerisms, we feel the full weight of many years crash down on them both in startling succession, much like the Time Passes part of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. They cannot help but come to so many realizations about life. All without the cushion of so many blanket years to dull the blow that their parents are only human. That resignation and forgetfulness are as important to life as death itself.
I would have liked to have seen Shyamalan explore these subjects deeper. But unfortunately, he co-opts body horror to drive the overall narrative. And in turn, it makes some of the most tragic moments lose their emotional consequence. Sure, a number of these characters come to terms with death in their own individual ways. Though it feels overtly simplistic, without surprises. Mere archetypes followed through to the very end.
Still, M. Night Shyamalan has proven himself to be just as devious as my first memory of him. Huddled underneath the sheets after having watched The Sixth Sense for the first time at a sleepover. Time has only been good to him, and I expect it always will. Even if the years pass by as quickly as the seconds. – Daniel Hrncir
Old is now playing in theaters. The film stars Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Thomasin McKenzie, and Alex Wolff.