If a movie doesn’t take itself seriously, then how can it expect anyone else to? What is the point of its grand ideas if it can’t get the audience to stop sniggering at them? There is a difference between sincerity and self-seriousness. And it’s something that director M Night Shyamalan continues to wrestle with, nearly three decades into his storied career.
Shot at the peak of the pandemic, and in many ways inspired by it, Shyamalan’s new thriller, Old, is both admirable and annoying. It literally loses the plot sometime around the one-hour mark, while it is knee-deep in second act shenanigans. This happens after Shyamalan has, in trademark fashion, set up an intriguing premise. He remains a remarkably efficient visual storyteller, but once again, his writing can’t keep up with his direction.
Watch the Old trailer here:
In its opening moments, we’re introduced to nice couple and their two children as they check in to a tropical retreat named Anamika — wild month for resorts, by the way, with The White Lotus and Nine Perfect Strangers — and shortly after their arrival, are told in hushed tones by the resort’s manager about a secret beach nearby. He tells them that he doesn’t reveal the hidden gem’s location to just anybody, but feels compelled to now. He offers a vague explanation. But neither Guy Cappa (Gael Garcia Bernal) nor his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps) bother to ask him why they’ve been offered this special privilege.
The next day, the Cappas are driven to the beach (by a driver played by Shyamalan, in his customary cameo), where they are joined by a rich doctor and his trophy wife, a zoned-out rapper, and a middle-aged couple with skills that will later come in handy when the plot requires swift problem-solving. The group realises that the beach has mysterious properties–it rapidly speeds up the ageing process of whoever is on it, essentially reducing the average lifespan of a human being to 24 hours.
Suddenly, the Cappas must reckon with their impending deaths, and also contemplate the agony of losing their children, who are ageing more visibly than the adults because they’re also gaining mass. It’s a terrifying situation to be in, and Shyamalan skilfully sets up not only the plot, but also conflicts between the characters. It all comes to head in a breathtaking dolly shot that glides across the pristine beach as the characters are overwhelmed by paranoia.
And that, for some reason, is when he decides to take his foot off the throttle and slam the breaks. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Films like Old work only when the pace doesn’t let up. The moment the plot takes a breather, you’re compelled to analyse it, which is never a good situation to be in. You start regretting the leap of faith that you had willingly taken an hour ago. You begin to kick yourself for being so easily manipulated. And worst of all, you curse the director for having tricked you with such silliness.
By slowing down, all that Shyamalan does is turn the audience against him — a terrible position for any filmmaker to be in, but even worse for him, a man whose name still evokes groans when it pops up in movie marketing. This is true. You’d imagine that after his recent creative output — which he finances himself, by the way, having declared that he isn’t interested in making movies unless he has skin in the game — Shyamalan would’ve earned back some of that early-career cred. But, no. After Glass, this is the second disappointment in a row from the filmmaker, who makes it abundantly clear with Old that he severely needs someone to supervise him.
Like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, who are both brilliant, Shyamalan tends to get carried away without a producer to keep him in check. The ideas are all there, but the execution is all over the place. Consider the absolutely insane twist that happens around halfway into the film. Shyamalan builds towards it with a clarity of vision, with the unmistakable swagger of someone who knows that he has the audience by the scruff of its neck. But he doesn’t linger on the reveal as forcefully as he should have. He moves on to a new distraction mere moments later. This scene sort of functions like that nail-on-the-staircase sequence from A Quiet Place, but has about half the impact.
Old is frustrating because it’s so promising — it’s a Trouble in Paradise movie about mortality, an idea that we’ve all been forced to reckon with in the last year. And like The Irishman — stay with me for a second — it’s a film that Shyamalan couldn’t have made as a young man. It is, instead, a front-loaded facsimile of an M Night Shyamalan movie, made by the one-time wunderkind as he continues to chart his own path, for better or for worse. Old’s narrative wrinkles, however, are far more pronounced than the ones on its characters’ faces.
Director – M Night Shyamalan
Cast – Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Rufus Sewell, Abby Lee
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar