It’s been a minute since M. Night Shyamalan made an “M. Night Shyamalan movie.” You know, the ones featuring the dirty “T” word. Maybe no director outside of Guy Ritchie has been more pilloried for pioneering a trend and then beating it into the ground, but that’s what happened when everyone started speculating what the surprise twist in the next M. Night Shyamalan movie would be. The snark flowed easily and was richly satisfying. Consequently, Shyamalan stayed away from that kind of movie for a while, making a big-screen adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a sci-fi vehicle for Will Smith and his son, two sequels to Unbreakable, and a found footage movie about possessed grandparents. Nary a twist in sight.
But Shyamalan’s cold turkey couldn’t last forever. He’s back in familiar high-concept territory in Old, with decidedly mixed results. To call them “mixed” is to recognise what we recognised when Shyamalan started to become a parody of himself around The Village, which is that he’s a talented visual stylist with some clever ideas, and his execution occasionally makes you laugh out loud. You’ll probably laugh out loud at least once during Old, and not because of what Shyamalan thinks of as jokes (more on that in a minute). However, you’ll also probably find some moments that give you a little frisson of excitement, like the writer-director provided when he first burst on the scene with The Sixth Sense two decades ago.
First, though, we have to be fair: Old does not exactly have a twist. Sorry, is it a spoiler to say that a movie does not have a twist? What happens in the third act of Old is more like a reveal than a twist. We know something’s going on, we just don’t know what it is, and near the end, we finally learn. “Twist” is too gimmicky a word for what this is. It’s a mystery that we’re meant to slowly put together, though your mileage may vary.
The thing we’re trying to figure out is why tourists staying at a resort on a remote island are suddenly starting to age at a rapid rate. Not every tourist, only those hand-selected by the resort manager to visit a private beach surrounded by unusual geological formations, which is off limits for most people, with exceptions made for the occasional “nice family.” It’s debatable whether this should be the reward for being “nice,” or whether this family actually merits the description.
Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) found the resort online and have brought their children, 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six-year-old Trent (Nolan River). Guy and Prisca are trying to hide their marital difficulties and the diagnosis of a benign tumour in Prisca. Three generations of another family and a second couple have joined them in an SUV driven by none other than the director himself (of course), who escorts them out past the locked gate to the secluded beach, with a suspiciously large amount of food for an afternoon picnic.
They’re supposed to call M. Night Hitchcock when they want to leave, or he will pick them up at 5, whichever comes first. But there’s no mobile reception on the beach, and when they try to return from whence they came, they find themselves blacking out in the rock caverns. Any attempt to leave the beach seems blocked, including by sea, and there’s already a disoriented man at the beach (Aaron Pierre), who is bleeding from the nose. When the man’s companion washes up dead, it’s alarming, but not as alarming as the fact that the three young children suddenly look five years older, and the septuagenarian in the party suddenly stops breathing.
The idea at the centre of Old is fascinating; nay, downright chilling. But its pedestrian introduction eats away most of the intrigue, as Shyamalan’s notoriously poor direction of actors, combined with his on-the-nose writing, puts a stilted point on all the proceedings. For a director known for his eye, Shyamalan demonstrates a curious inclination to tell instead of show. Characters stand around dumbly pontificating on what they think is happening to them, in what passes for exposition. The wooden quality of it makes one wonder why Shyamalan doesn’t have more trust in his obvious skills as a visual stylist. At best, the dialogue feels redundant; at worst, characters bark random things at each other that come from nowhere, speaking and acting more like robots reading preposterous dialogue than human beings.
Even the language in which he is most fluent, his visual language, is frequently confused. Shyamalan has a tendency to let his camera wander around a scene, ultimately returning to the starting point with no clear sense of what was accomplished through the just-completed meander. He’s also engaging in some awkward staging designed to delay certain reveals, like the fact that the children are now being played by different actors because they’ve aged since we last saw them. But we’re so far ahead of the film in realising that this is what Shyamalan is doing that we just feel impatient to get to his prized reveal.
Then there are the distracting moments when he bends over backwards to try some outside-the-box technique. In one example, he shows us that the corpse that washed up has now lost all remnants of flesh by placing the camera on the other side of the body and shooting through the vacant rib cage. Since we never see the corpse straight on, we feel like the director is depriving us the money shot just for sport.
One particularly weird part about Old is when Shyamalan tries to be funny, especially since it happens so infrequently in the script. In fact, the film’s one apparent joke is that the man they find on the beach when they get there is a famous rapper who goes by the stage name Mid-Sized Sedan. Get it? Rappers have funny names! It’s almost racist, especially since there’s no narrative reason this guy needs to be a rapper except that Shyamalan wanted to make this lame joke.
And yet you struggle through all these obvious deficiencies because there’s something at the core of Old that feels original, discomfiting, and yes, profound in some way. Even if Shyamalan belabours the way his conceit plays out, there’s something about it that really resonates – especially when it comes to that third-act reveal. So if Shyamalan’s film career is built on twists, the surprise twist here is this: It’s actually worth sticking around until the end. This may be the same Old Shyamalan, but that means it does contain something of value within all the self-indulgence.
Old is currently playing in cinemas.