I was very aware of my heartbeat during Old, a new movie from M. Night Shyamalan, adapted from a graphic novel. A little of this awareness could be attributed to the movie’s free-floating tension, which is not so much punctuated by Shyamalan’s particularly dad-like strain of humor as it is inextricably woven together with it. Most of it could be attributed to the arrythmia that flares up once in a while, usually when I’m seated in a certain position. Our bodies are capable of so much resilience, not least in the field of disguising their essential fragility. Old understands this. It’s about a group of people trapped on a beach where, they eventually realize, their aging is rapidly accelerated. A lifespan of eightysomething years gets compressed into a day and a half, maybe two. This creates an unnerving paradox: The passage of time rapidly heals surface wounds, even substantial ones, into scars. The bodies simply don’t have time to bleed out. Time presses onward. And then, hours later, the bodies fail anyway.
Old is a horror movie, but not always how you’d expect. This is par for the course for Shyamalan, who has worked consistently in genre films since The Sixth Sense became an unexpected smash 22 years ago. That movie cast such a melancholy, spooky, affecting spell that it took a little time for some to catch on to Shyamalan’s deceptively weird rhythms, especially in his characters’ manner of speaking: Stilted phrasings, shoehorned exposition, dad jokes—like a George Lucas character somehow filtered through a hushed therapy session. In Shyamalan’s wilderness years, these clunky qualities proceeded to the foreground of Lady in the Water or The Last Airbender. In his more recent films, they haven’t receded, but Old may be a case of steering into the skid and coming out intact. As it turns out, his peculiar writing style fits near-perfectly for preteen kids, still finding their way with words. The younger characters approach strangers and ask for their names and occupations, at once a wholly believable quirk and a sneaky way of slipping in some of Shyamalan’s beloved expositional directness. As with The Visit, the kids feel like they’re speaking his language, fluently.
Kids make up half of the movie’s central family: Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are bringing their children Trent (Nolan River) and Maddox (Alexa Swinton) on a swanky island getaway, which is secretly doubling as a sort of pre-separation farewell. Like so many Shyamalan marriages, Guy and Prisca’s is faltering; like so many Shyamalan kids, Trent and Maddox are aware, at least faintly, eavesdropping on fights from the adjoining hotel bedroom that Guy and Prisca obviously believe aren’t as audible as they really are. It’s the first of many instances where Shyamalan cuts away from a discomfiting action, in favor of showing other characters reacting to its off-screen presence. Even before matters take a turn for the supernaturally menacing, Shyamalan’s approach to shot-reverse shot compositions call attention to the technique, the backs of heads featuring more prominently in his widescreen frame than scans as “normal.” No traditional over-the-shoulder set-ups here; the camera tends to capture five, six, or more characters in the frame at once, even or especially if they’re facing the opposite direction.
At the behest of their fancy hotel, the family is ushered to a secluded beach, along with some fellow guests. That is where—eventually, and maybe too eventually for some tastes—everyone comes to realize that something is not right. Yet even the drawn-out, sometimes vexingly disordered way that the collective realization hits feels oddly realistic. Of course, Guy and Prisca first notice changes in their children, not themselves; they’re at once too watchful over their family and too caught up in other adult matters to realize that they, too, are aging years in a matter of minutes. Shyamalan’s strategy of hiding characters’ faces pays off as holds back the images of the kids as they go through their biggest changes.
Discussing the specifics of what happens beyond this point would be counterproductive. Let’s discuss instead Shyamalan’s strange mixture of humanism and pitilessness. A natural progression of the aging process is not the only threat to these characters, and they frequently descend into confused bickering as they try to get a handle on whether they might be able to escape this unusual form of hell. There is, of course, something poignant and tragic about parents witnessing helplessly as their kids’ childhoods slip away, something that is bearable in real life only because it’s parceled out in relative moderation. For the most part, Shyamalan lets this poignancy pass by—intentionally, I must assume, especially based on a few later-movie moments of quiet that play catch-up on the emotional devastation.
But most of Old has little time for poetry. Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie, the actors who must show up and assume roles unexpectedly, have impossible tasks before them, playing children whose brains are maturing along with their bodies but maybe not at quite the same rate—an imperfection within the beach’s relentlessness, if we’re being generous. It’s unnerving, difficult to judge, and weirdly fitting of Shyamalan’s writing style; if he’s good at approximating the odd constructions of a child’s conversational skills, he’s great at imagining how a discomfiting child-adult hybrid might express themselves. This will doubtless further frustrate those who wish Shyamalan would tamp down his, well, tendencies and make a watered-down, normalized version of his own work. (Or, worse: direct someone else’s screenplay! Oh, won’t someone please think of the armchair screenwriters!) Like his less successful The Happening, Old has a strong strain of ‘50s B-movie, from its multiple doctor characters filling the explanatory-scientist role to its not-quite-naturalistic dialogue style. “Let’s just concentrate on the issue at hand… do you know about movies?” a dismissive doctor (Rufus Sewell, obliging with the bad vibes as per usual) says at one point, and it’s both a bizarre laugh line in context and an admission from Shyamalan that he feels an obligation to his showmanship, strange as it may be.
What’s impressive about Old is how closely he ties the horrific stuff into his dorky sense of humor; this may be his tightest movie in that regard, even as it revels in the messiness of people never quite getting a full handle on the horrors enveloping them. Shyamalan’s willingness to let details spill out awkwardly during moments of existential terror will cause plenty of audience members to assume that they are laughing at the movie, rather than with it, and maybe they will be. There are certainly moments where Old’s clunkiness undermines its drama, especially in the sputtering rhythms of its denouement. Whatever the film might be trying to say about the aging process, and how ill-equipped we may be to handle it, gets a little muddled by a zeal for literal explanation. Again, Shyamalan isn’t leaving us with lyricism, even if he leaves some in his wake, and it’s difficult to parse whether this is a treatise on stopping and smelling the ocean water, or fighting through the impossible indignities of growing up and aging toward death, even if it takes up an inordinate amount of time. There’s a psychological messiness to Old, which even mocks a psychologist’s attempts to get everyone to talk through their fear, which makes it more memorable than a trackable metaphor. Folks of a certain young age have rendered this word near-meaningless, but fuck it: Old is chaotic, all the more so for being made with the utmost control behind the camera. It’s as irregular and impossible to miss as a heart skipping a beat.