'Old' is M. Night Shyamalan in All the Best and Worst Ways
We review the new comic book adaptation and consider where it falls in the director's filmography.
Hell is other people on a beach. By some miracle, you've broken free from your daily-life shackles and landed on a tropical paradise. You've calmed your family into a serene sense of togetherness; smiles stretch across their faces. You found an isolated nook away from the tourists, and you remembered to bring the big umbrella. Your only problem? You're in an M. Night Shyamalan movie, and he brought some other folks into your script to ruin your day. Oh, and uh, that beach, it's a nook for a reason.
In Old, Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are desperate to give their two children one final happy vacation before they break some terrible news to them. They're hoping this memory will cling to the kids for the rest of their lives, overshadowing the torment and betrayal that's about to rock their universe. Us watching understand their plan's futility, but we also know that their troubles are just getting started. We've seen The Sixth Sense. We've seen The Village. We can already spot the twist coming.
Since Prisca clicked on the right links in the right email, they've scored a destination too good to be true. When they arrive at their hotel, the staff greet them with tailored-to-their-taste beverages, a bottomless dessert bar, and the secret location to a beach that most of the other guests would kill to discover. If they promise not to tell the others, the hotel will escort them through a windy off-limits path that dumps them on a coastline straight outta Jimmy Buffets' wet dreams. Everyone loves a secret, so Guy and Prisca accept.
Unfortunately, the hotel quickly reveals themselves as monsters when the fam arrives only to discover several other guests maxing and relaxing. There's the aggressively stand-offish Charles (Rufus Sewell), his trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), his mother (Kathleen Chalfant), and their daughter. Nervous lovebirds Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) are a friendlier lot, but she suffers from severe seizures and gave the kids quite a start the afternoon before. Hanging back from the ocean, placing his back firmly to the cliff-face that hides the beach from most, is the rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre). He's not a bother until his lady friend washes up as a corpse.
With the body's reveal, Old shifts into the more familiar Shyamalan territory. Folks lose their damn minds attempting to flee the beach for help, but every time they try to walk the path that brought them there, they blackout. The beach won't let them leave. Making matters all the more terrifying, as time passes, their bodies age rapidly. The children are soon not children, but adults. And the parents are not merely adults but geriatrics racing to the grave.
Old is based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Frederik Peeters and Pierre Oscar Lévy. The comic presents a mystery but doesn't get hung up on the why. Peeters and Lévy use the horrifying magic to explore the deteriorating bonds between all characters. Shyamalan engages with those same crumbling relationships, but his script tumbles during the explanation. Exploring the responsible entity rips the audience from the narrative drive. When the film takes a hard left, we get whiplash. Recovering from it is impossible.
Still, the time on the beach is tense, and the actors excel with their characters' predicament. Vicky Krieps is the star, but Gael García Bernal is given the film's most heartbreaking moment. As time slips through their fingers, the problems they brought to the beach become increasingly trivial. The terror of watching their children age before them eventually recedes to wonder. It's a gift to meet the people your kids will grow into.
Shyamalan's filmography is a rocky road with magnificent highs and treacherous lows. Old doesn't reach either terminus. It's somewhere in the middle, but the path is pointing up. If he didn't have to be so American about it all and he cut the last act from his script, Old would park somewhere just behind Split and Signs with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable far ahead of them. As is, Old is stationed alongside The Village. Having now named my preferences, you can do with this review whatever you want.