Only a handful of directors – Scorsese, Tarantino etc – have reached the heights where their latest film is seen as a cinematic event, not just a mere release. The reason for M Night Shyamalan finding his way onto that select list, as you’d expect, is less than conventional. That “twist” label stuck to him like glue after The Sixth Sense, and he’s never been able to shake it off. Since then, his films have taken us on a rollercoaster ride when it comes to the quality of his filmmaking. We simply never know what he’s going to do next, or how well – or not – he’s going to do it.
The premise behind Old is intriguing. A family relaxing on a secluded tropical beach, a little piece of paradise, far away from the worries of the world. But it’s not all it seems and, as the day goes on, they all seem to age rapidly. It’s more noticeable with the children, who evolve into teenagers and young adults in just a few hours. Death is stalking them all and there’s no escape from the sandy cove and its powers. This being Shyamalan, it’s a lot more complicated than that, but this is a spoiler-free review. Does that mean there’s a twist? Maybe …..
Regardless of audience expectations – is it as good as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, or as bad as Lady In The Water? – this could prove to be his most divisive film yet. There’s a lot that’s good about it, some of which is more by coincidence than design. Filmed under COVID restrictions, the isolation and the lingering presence of death touches a raw nerve, harking back to the earlier days of the pandemic when coming to terms with an unseen enemy was frightening and we were all separated from the people we wanted to be with most. It’s a feeling woven into the fabric of the film, making it both compelling and unsettling. There are times when your seat will feel unexpectedly uncomfortable, especially when the setting is so beautiful and idyllic.
But what is essentially a combination of body horror and family drama has its downsides as well. Shyamalan has assembled a quality ensemble cast – Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Thomasin McKenzie, et al – which mixes new acting talent with more familiar faces. The trouble is he’s lumbered them with a script that makes them talk at each other rather than have a conversation. As an attempt to be stylised, it just sounds awkward and gets in the way of our involvement with the characters. It’s a testament to the actors that our attention only drifts occasionally. The initial revelations of aging promise escalating tension, but they’re let down later on by one particular scene which is so grotesque as to be laughable, rather than frightening.
We won’t talk about the ending for obvious reasons, but there is a moment in the latter stages that will stick with you for some time afterward. Assuming you notice it. It’s fleeting, easy to miss but will make you question everything you’ve seen so far – as well as what’s to come next. Old isn’t Shyamalan at his absolute best but, despite its weaknesses, it’s far from being his worst. And it’ll be a compliment to the film if it makes you think that a staycation isn’t such a bad idea …..
Thriller, Horror | Cert:15 | Universal Pictures | Cinemas | 23 July 2021 | Dir. M Night Shyamalan | Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff, Eliza Scanlen, Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee