Release Date: July 23, 2021
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Runtime: 1 hour 58 minutes
Columnist's rating: B
Despite being almost 30 years into his Hollywood career, M. Night Shyamalan continues to reinvent his place in the industry. Since the disastrous attempts he made at starting film franchises with “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” he has slowly regained respect with hits like “The Visit” and “Split.” However, none of these films quite fully embody his personal style of filmmaking and storytelling. It is this that makes “Old” special, because it feels like a true return to form for Shyamalan.
The film stars Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie as a family traveling for vacation, who get trapped on a beach that makes them age rapidly. In true Shyamalan fashion, there is more to the premise than what is initially presented, but the plot twists are surprisingly inconsequential to the theme that the film is most interested in exploring.
“Old” focuses its efforts on two ideas: creating an unbearable atmosphere of unease, and examining how people cope when faced with a hopeless situation. The first is achieved by some of Shyamalan’s most inventive filmmaking to date. Often in the film, disturbing imagery is only partially revealed while the camera sits at an awkward frame. To an untrained viewer, these shots would almost feel like they were left in by mistake, but it is this exact tension for the mind that heightens the horror.
In one sequence, one of the beach visitors, who has quickly progressed to an age where their bones are brittle and can easily break, climbs through a cave toward Wolff and McKenzie, breaking more bones and looking more demented as she approaches them. Instead of letting the viewer witness the full horror, this visual is revealed one piece at a time with successive lightning strikes. The sound of the bones breaking combined with the horrifying visual creates something infinitely more disturbing in the viewer’s head than the actual image on screen.
Mainstream movies have become such a uniform product that when a film such as “Old” breaks all the usual conventions, those decisions are twice as effective.
The best trick that Shyamalan pulls with “Old” is that these characters are completely doomed from the start. It adds a sense of dramatic irony to the whole film, as the audience knows most of these people won’t survive, but the characters think they have a chance. Watching them come to terms with their own mortal fate is the most compelling element of the movie.
As the minutes pass, the focus shifts from their attempts to get off the beach to the way the events effect their relationships with their family and other doomed strangers. “Old” ultimately reveals itself to be a dour character piece about the human condition, disguised as a horror movie.
Although it is not a decision that audiences will love, it’s a twist that makes sense and might define a new period for an older and wiser M. Night Shyamalan.