Director: M Night Shyamalan
Stars: Vicky Krieps, Ken Leung, Gael García Bernal
I’m sat looking at this blinking cursor in a WordPress draft, fresh from a screening of M Night Shyamalan’s Old and I’m thinking how, in the reality of the film, I’d have lost days of my life already trying to work out how to start this review.
I’d have probably lost a fortnight on what I’ve written so far.
Make it a month.
Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Frederick Peeters and Pierre-Oscar Lévy (which I’m now very curious to read), Old has a tantalisingly insane premise; a group of people trapped together on a deserted beach that somehow causes rapid aging. It’s a terrific conceit if your taste is for tales of the unexpected (hell, The X-Files already did it on a boat circa season 2). And M Night Shyamalan tessellates well with this kind of airport paperback mystery. As erratic as his filmography may be, this was always going to be an interesting one.
I’d say meet the [insert name] family, but I don’t believe we’re ever given that information. Though their marriage is failing, parents Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) have taken their two children (various) on a remote tropical getaway to a resort where they’re all thoroughly pampered. On day two of their stay they are urged to visit a remote beach on the far side of the island. They’re not the only ones given the opportunity, either. Having arrived at this isolated paradise – and in the presence of a famous but tight-lipped rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierce) – it isn’t long before the eclectic mix of holidaymakers realise something is awfully wrong.
The dead body that washes up is the first tip-off.
From here on, Old channels a persistent level of hysteria that is, in it’s own way, breathtaking to behold. With the kids powering through adolescence (hence the ‘various’; thankfully Shyamalan opts for exceedingly savvy casting over distracting CGI), we’re powered through a number of bonkers set pieces at what feels like breakneck speed. On the beach, an hour equates to a year of your life. One 45-minute pregnancy is barreled through in about four minutes of movie time. For a stretch, every scene feels as bug-eyed nuts as the emergency C-section sequence in Prometheus. And all the while Shyamalan’s cadre of actors howl in horror and despair. You want roller coaster cinema? This is it.
Some fair better than others. Vicky Krieps is a highlight, bringing a sense of quiet pathos and reality to the prospect or rapid-aging. The same could be said for daughter Maddox as played by Thomasin McKenzie from her teenage years and though her twenties. Others fair less well, but that might be a result of the madcap editing, which throws shocked exclamations at us like there’s no tomorrow (which, for many of these characters, there probably isn’t).
The writing, while wildly imaginative, leaves a lot to be desired in other ways. A number of these characters are very lazy, even damaging stereotypes. Particularly laughable are cliché therapist Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and token nut Charles (Rufus Sewell). Old weaponises deteriorating mental health in a manner that feels particularly regressive. The dialogue is entertaining, but blunt-force. Every line is either exposition or loaded with strained metaphorical weight. Characters ruminate on not having time, or savouring the moment etc… It’s all pretty laboured and a lot of it is goofy.
And that’s the fun of it. For a good portion of the running time, Old is an enjoyably naff experience. I kept thinking about a somewhat-obscure late-’60s proto-giallo from Mario Bava called Five Dolls for an August Moon, which similarly maroons a bunch of characters by the sea and then hurriedly bumps them off one by one. It doesn’t have nearly the same high-concept conceit running its motor, but it has a very similar feel. Particularly when you watch it with a dodgy English dub. That’s what the dialogue in Old sounds like; the awkwardly-clipped dubbing on a decades-old Euro thriller. Everything’s a bit fast, a bit campy and delivered with exaggerated gusto.
Shyamalan is good at mysteries, and here he uses the camera to make you feel like questioning everything. When not cutting like a gibbon on speed, he favours a number of sweeping pans and off-kilter close-ups that are held a mite longer than you’d expect. Each of these feels like it is shadily handing you some kind of clue when, frequently, nothing of the sort is being conveyed. M Night is toying with us. He knows his reputation. There’s a sense of trolling about Old that I happily bought into.
And that’s the thing about this oddball offering. Even though, ultimately, it doesn’t work as a coherent experience (the last act particularly), you can’t imagine many filmmakers being given the opportunity to present something this far-flung to a mainstream cinema audience under the guise of a summer thriller. Jordan Peele, sure. Darren Aronofsky maybe, but he’s running out of chances I’d wager. The list isn’t long though. Manic, garbled and ridden with inconsistencies it may be, but Old represents something precious in the modern multiplex landscape – pizzazz and willful risk-taking. These are qualities to be applauded and nurtured if we’re to be surprised or compelled while watching mass entertainment. Qualities that often feel as though they are fading fast.
The longer you sit with Old, the more spurious it feels. But also, maybe, more precious. It crumples like a sandcastle swept by the first lick of the waves, but that doesn’t matter. A sandcastle might be the perfect metaphor for this daft upstart of a movie. An imperfect, impermanent object, most pleasing in the moment before it’s toppled, gone, but not necessarily forgotten.
Certainly not one this improbable-looking.
Speaking of which, who knew Gael García Bernal would end up looking like a moldy John Cena? Uncanny.