I hope M. Night Shyamalan is having a pleasant weekend.
I hope the director – for a long time one of the movies’ weirdest mainstream imagineers, the creator of genre classics for which consensus opinion may be impossible – is greeting the release of his latest, “Old,” envisioning not what audiences might say after leaving the theater but rather the squints and disoriented glances that’ll inevitably appear on the faces of those fitfully trying to decipher his latest bewildering design.
I hope, in other words, that he’s finding it within himself to unplug and steal away to a beach for the weekend...just, a different locale of sandy shores than the one he (quite literally, as it turns out) whisks us to in “Old” alongside Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps’s quickly and quietly collapsing family; an ostensible paradise where freak reversals of nature turn a relaxed afternoon into a spiral through bodily and interpersonal reckoning. If you decide to buy a ticket to “Old” (and there are much less interesting ways you can kill two hours this weekend, no matter what you make of the galactically strange final 15ish minutes) you likely already get the gist of what you’re getting yourself into. The Shyamalan of it all, as it were, manifested in the corporeal forms of these beachgoers (young ones, older ones, and older ones still) maturing at exorbitantly quick rates—and, terrifyingly and vitally, irreversible ones.
The truth is, “Old” begins as an even more front-facing existential thriller than its marketing would suggest. From the moment this seemingly peaceful family arrives at a luxurious resort, everything feels a bit off. Performative, almost. Is that our awareness of the trickster director coming in hot, or merely a recognition of the alternate identities we may casually slip into around beaches and Mai Tais? The wonderful, admirable thing about “Old” is it turns out to be both. Its allegorical potential as a bikini-clad fairy tale about how time is always moving too fast for us to realize what we’re missing stretches practically as far as we allow it to (at least before the movie’s very last revelations, which end it on a much less fulfilling sense of disorientation).
At the same time, however, we’re watching a director gleefully responding to the reception of his own work. Here, he’s in on the joke before we’re allowed to make it. “I don’t like this dynamic at all,” a fellow vacationer remarks at one particularly awkward moment, and you should absolutely go ahead and laugh at the sheer obviousness of it all. That Shyamalan is, for the first time in a long time, fully in the position of foreseeing how we’ll adjust our eyes to the dark machinations of his mind makes “Old” as funny as it is tense as it is emotionally poignant. Buy a ticket to “Old,” and you’ll likely expect to watch a cast of characters fumbling about in life-or-death confusion. But you’ll also find yourself caught in a similar trance in which any amount of information could be revealed in the next cut, and possibly even within it. The movie’s strength lies in how it pulses as a living, breathing double entendre.
There’s a mischievousness to how certain prolonged stretches of our protagonists’ plight – they’re aging two years every hour, affecting their thoughts as well as their bodies – seem like they’re unfolding in real time, only for the premise to turn that sensation on its head in visceral and mind-boggling ways. It certainly feels like Shyamalan either clearing the deck or clearing the air after the ambitious but mismanaged “Glass” retroactively turned his low-key superhero fable “Unbreakable'' into the start of a saga which saw him analyzing realities about mainstream response to artistry through a lens I suspect only he could fully appreciate.
Whether that three-movie arc (with 2016’s “Split” serving as the middle chapter) really was a nearly-20-year odyssey in the making or not doesn’t make it any less ironic that “Old” represents its formal and experimental antithesis—a sense-warping scenario in which logic is bent all out of shape before our eyes, where the metaphor is out in the sun-drenched open, where the satisfaction is derived from our eventual understanding that the stakes for this movie’s victims are as clear as the extent of them feels infinite.
I can imagine Shyamalan laughing already at having buckled himself into the front car of this rollercoaster ride. He’s earned that much, at least, after a decade in which he’s increasingly felt like a storyteller for whom commercial expectations have clashed against his foundational idiosyncrasy. During a stretch of Hollywood history dominated by the brainwashing of general audiences to ignore potentially clumsy storytelling so long as they leave the theater whispering excitedly about the possibility of what’s to come, Shyamalan’s name has, somewhat unfairly, become shorthand for little more than anticipating the twist—the moment that broadens our understanding but shrinks our curiosity. It’s the reason why it feels like we’re refamiliarizing ourselves when we think back to his breakout works of “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” movies propelled by a humanity in which desperation of belief serves as a gasoline trail waiting for the spark. From the onset, he’s been more than the gimmick suggests.
Now along comes “Old,” in which Shyamalan pokes fun at our obsession with formula over function. I’m sure he expects us to think we’re on his tail when we first notice people acting strangely, see things left in unusual places and squint at the strange glint along the rocky ridges surrounding the beach. But he catches us off guard with the sincere candor of his ensemble, whose performances are rooted less in a place of horror than from astonishment. You can feel the fourth wall shattering not because Bernal’s Guy, Krieps’s Prisca and their rapidly aging children look at us, but because the situation is so deeply inexplicable and yet they’re sincerely attempting to explain their way to salvation anyway. Even after finding evidence confirming the supernatural trap they find themselves in, one character is sure it all must be a “parlor trick,” a term we might have used in the past when watching this director’s films. And the way they attempt initial, logical methods of escape might remind us of our own thought processes watching any movie’s plot develop.
Is it really as simple as talking it out, a matter of being frank about our experiences? That those we watch in “Old” seem to wholeheartedly believe it is deeply amusing, but it also tightens its sentiments about the human experience. And so what if some of the dialogue here is stilted? Even after watching the most engaging of films we need time to find our words, and in “Old” even Mike Gioulakis’s dizzyingly playful camera spins around and around in circles, as if it too were looking for answers. Much of the best mid-movie stretches are high-velocity fits of virtuoso direction, and this is before we start to realize it isn’t just cells in bodies rapidly changing form, but also the sicknesses, love, desperation and regret that these characters brought with them.
There are stumbles, to be sure, on the escalating path toward “Old” at its most confident, including a cave-set sequence which sees Shyamalan indulging a more scream-inducing of the movie. It's memorable, though in a way that reneges on his thesis. At “Old’s” highest points, the terror is both more subtle and also twofold—worrying about escape means less time for our main family to own up to their secrets, but pausing to amend those fissures will only bring certain doom closure into view.
Shyamalan takes enough liberties that his rules and patterns eventually start to feel inconsistent, but that doesn’t keep the movie from becoming one of his most sincere stories while still retaining its cheeky self-awareness. Whether it’s worthwhile how the filmmaker takes that approach to its extremes in the conclusion will likely be debated for decades, but it doesn’t diminish what comes before, when we find Shyamalan making peace with whatever audiences associate with his name. It just so happens his own reckoning makes for an uproariously fun and wildly unexpected time at the movies, too.
"Old" is rated PG-13 for strong violence, disturbing images, suggestive content, partial nudity and brief strong language. It's now screening in theaters.
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
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