“We are grateful for the time we have been given.” – Edward Walker -“The Village”
M. Night Shyamalan has a thing for boundaries—illusory or otherwise. The most obvious example of this being his 2004 pagan thriller “The Village.” Ever since Shyamalan’s fourth feature, after establishing a still seemingly irreversible “twist-heavy” reputation with “I see dead people” in “The Sixth Sense,” audiences go into his movies unfairly expecting a supernatural rug to be pulled out from under them. This has created a kind of unwinnable scenario for the filmmaker (see: “Glass,” his most mature filmmaking venture in over a decade); so, in many regards, the best way to appreciate his newest trip “Old,” (very much the flip side to “The Village’s” self-imposed state of control) is to realize that, like a sand castle (also the name on the graphic novel on which the film is based), the more you invest in its structural foundation(s), the faster you will feel it washed away by the tide provided the moat isn’t deep enough.
Featuring a strong cast that never quite gels (perhaps intentionally), “Old” sports a fascinating premise that doesn’t quite dig as deep as one expects from a filmmaker of Night’s caliber/reputation. Following a family of 4 on a last grasp tropical vacation before inevitable separation papers are filed, mother and father, Prisca and Guy (Vicky Krieps, Gael Garcia Bernal) want to give their children one last beautiful memory. Having Googled a secretive island getaway—where personal preference questionnaires result in custom cocktails being served upon immediate arrival—the cordial resort staff suggest spending the day at a secluded beach only the most special of guests (another big Night motif) are invited to.
Joined by two other groups—a rich family consisting of an elder surgeon (Rufus Sewell), his appearance obsessed wife (Abbey Lee), mother (Kathleen Chalfant) and daughter (who soon grows up to be “Little Women’s” Eliza Scanlen), and mixed-race couple, Jarin and Patricia (Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, the movie injecting a bit of forced racial commentary)—and a famous rapper called Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), “Old’s” ensemble starts realizing something odd is going on after a dead body washes up on the shore, decomposing in a matter of minutes as opposed to the number of years science would deem as normal.
It’s a good thing two of the families have children, as hair follicles are conveniently unaffected by the beach’s aging rules. It is not until their kids suddenly age at a rapid rate that everyone begins to accept what appears to be happening (“You can’t just leave us here!”). Realizing they will die in about a day at the rate in which they are aging, leaving doesn’t seem to be an option either, as everyone blacks out when attempting to exit the age-warping beach via the entrance cave.
Overall, “Old” does come up with some clever bits commenting on matters of life and death—both frightening and comedic—but by loosely establishing its rules as applicable through practical production aspects, the movie limits its own imaginative shortcomings. In other words, characters like the 6-year-old son of Guy and Prisca, Trent—played by “Pig’s” Alex Wolff throughout the majority of the film—ages 4 times; whereas 11-year-old Maddox—morphing into the uber-talented Thomasin McKenzie, who can apparently pass for 16 or 30—ages only thrice. None of the already adult actors change much at all save some wrinkly make-up here and there. And only Rufus Sewell’s character seems affected by anything resembling dementia—entertainingly straining to remember what the name of the one film which starred both Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando was called (it’s “The Missouri Breaks,” man!).
For all the movie’s practical limits however, Shyamalan sure does his damnedest to try and stage the shit out of its aesthetic potential. Using his typical array of balancing fixed, often mounted camera placements utilizing focus to its full potential, with eerily eschew bursts of sudden movement, he and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis take a sunny-side beach atmosphere and turn it almost Antonioni-level chilly at times. It also allows for a expressive extension of his use of water as a motif (the weakness of both superheroes and aliens in the filmmaker’s mind)—an elixir of life and grim reaper all the same.
Of course, what will matter most to viewers will be the end twist, which, in this writer’s opinion is one of the strongest in Night’s oeuvre, adding an extra narrative dimension cleverly hidden for most of the runtime—a few insert shots make the root of it obvious, but these shots don’t detract from the reveal. It’s deliberately goofy but in relevant ways that will make you think—a natural evolution of how the director’s often (increasingly meta-textual) expressivity plays with defined barriers of mortal existence, but it reveals “Old” to also be a limiting narrative in terms of moral implications and creative capacity.
“Everything extraordinary can be explained away, and yet it is true. I think deep down you know this. Everything we will see and do will have a basis in science. But it will have limits.” – Mr. Glass
“Old” opens in theaters July 23