Film

Review: A Bizarre Mix of Tones and Styles, Old May Frustrate But Stays Intriguing, Watchable

Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s Old is a bizarre mix of a thriller, family drama, science fiction, and psychological dissection about a nuclear family on vacation on a tropical island who wander onto a secluded beach that they can’t escape and where they immediately start aging at a rate of a few years per hour. Along with a handful of other fellow tourists also on the “secret” beach, they all look for ways to get out of the area. But going back the way they came makes them pass out and eventually stumble back to the beach; swimming isn’t an option; and even climbing up the steep rocks that form the boundary of one way out turns out to be too dangerous.

old

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

The concept of Old is fantastic, primarily because we assume someone will figure a way out of this, and it becomes a true mystery to be solved. But it’s also fascinating to see what happens to everyone—from young children to an elderly woman—as they rapidly age. The oldest person simply dies after a couple of hours, but the kids go through puberty and adolescence so quickly that their brains simply don’t have time to mature along with their bodies and raging hormones, leading to some questionable results. One beachgoer with memory issues eventually goes into full-on dementia and becomes a genuine threat to everyone as he gets more and more confused. People with minor hearing or sight issues see their disabilities grow exponentially worse. And one person with a calcium deficiency that weakens her bones…don’t even ask me what happens there.

The film begins innocently enough with the central family—Gael Garcia Bernal as Guy, Vicky Krieps as Prisca, Nolan River as 6-year-old son Trent, and Alexa Swinton as 11-year-old daughter Maddox—arrive at the resort and are treated like royalty, with specialty cocktails, great beaches, and plenty for the kids to do. There are clues dropped throughout the opening few scenes that are more obvious after you’ve seen the movie, but until that time, they come across as strange, frequently awkward exchanges that involve Trent and the son of Gustaf Hammarsten’s resort manager character going around to each guest asking their names and occupations. Knowing what everyone does for a living comes into play later in the film, but in these early sequences, it just seem like quirky kid behavior, which doesn’t feel unnatural as it does just Trent being a weird little kid.

These stilted conversations carry over into adult interactions as well, to the point where it feels like Shyamalan wants us to think it’s his style, instead of just poor writing. I’m not quite as willing as some are to write him off as a bad writer just yet. After being turned on to the idea of hitting the secret beach the next day by the manager, the family are driven (by a van driver played by the filmmaker) to the entrance to a path that leads to the water and given more food than they could conceive of needing for one day at the beach (there’s an explanation for that as well, involving the kids’ metabolisms and still-growing bodies).

Also on the beach are a doctor (Rufus Sewell) and his trophy wife (Abbey Lee), along with their daughter who’s about Trent’s age and the doctor’s elderly mother; a practical couple played by Nikki Amuka-Bird and Ken Leung; and even a famous rapper, actually named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who arrives before the family shows up and appears to have lost his companion. Don’t worry, she floats back in later.

Adding to the oddness of the whole experience is genuinely freaky cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, who often places us in the midst of these stranded visitors, almost daring us to wonder what it would be like to be in this circumstance, which they determine will age them all to death in about 24 hours. Other times, the camera whips around to locate certain people just as some fresh hell has befallen them. It’s unsettling, for sure, but it does add to the entire viewing experience.

Less The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and more The Visit and Split, Old is may be baffling, even frustrating at times, but it’s always highly watchable and compelling. Shyamalan avoids going for the twist ending and gives us more of a traditional reveal about what exactly is going on and who exactly is spying on these poor aging people from a safe difference. It’s difficult to imagine anyone being satisfied with the ending of the film, but there are elements about it I found intriguing and genuinely unique for the filmmaker.

Some of the best actors show up mid-way through the film, like Thomasin McKenzie as an older Maddox, Alex Wolff as teenage/20s Trent, and Eliza Scanlen as similarly aged Kara. There’s at least one character we see portrayed by four different actors, and at times, Old becomes a game of seeing how dead-on the casting director can make several actors look like the same person. Bernal and Krieps are quite good as a couple on the verge of breaking up and attempting to keep this fact from their children. But as this crisis gets more dire (and they get older), they realize that they have often thought about growing old together, and while the circumstances are far from ideal, they’d rather do it this way than be apart. If nothing else, Old is a fascinating exercise in committing a certain style of writing and filmmaking and riding it until the end just to see where it goes. I was on board for most of the movie, and I’m guessing most audiences will respond to everything but the ending. From a filmmaker known for results as mixed as this one, I’ll take it.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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