Throughout his tumultuous career, M. Night Shyamalan has been singularly focused on trying to surprise audiences. What’s most surprising about his latest film however, is just how little has changed in his bag of tricks. Old has all the hallmarks of Shyamalan’s storytelling style. There’s a preponderance of silly, inauthentic dialogue, tons of on the nose exposition, awkward comic relief that rarely lands as intended, and what seems like an active hatred for ambiguity. Yet, for all of Old’s silliness and lack of depth, it does provide a decent amount of suspense and is home to one really interesting concept.
Throughout his tumultuous career, M. Night Shyamalan has been singularly focused on trying to surprise audiences. What’s most surprising about his latest film however, is just how little has changed in his bag of tricks. Old has all the hallmarks of Shyamalan’s storytelling style. There’s a preponderance of silly, inauthentic dialogue, tons of on the nose exposition, awkward comic relief that rarely lands as intended, and what seems like an active hatred for ambiguity. Yet, for all of Old‘s silliness and lack of depth, it does provide a decent amount of suspense and is home to one really interesting concept.
Old‘s premise is by far its biggest strength. The film follows a group of strangers on a tropical island who are led to a secluded beach where they begin aging rapidly. It’s a straightforward vehicle for suspense and Shyamalan takes it down some intense avenues. The way the concept of rapid aging is implemented follows a solid internal logic that holds up to any reasonable scrutiny. The cells in the characters’ bodies are what’s aging, which gives some context to the way the kids grow mentally as well as physically. Although it takes the characters far too long to ascertain what’s happening to them, it is an overall solid setup for the thrills to come.
When Shyamalan isn’t getting in his own way, the story itself actually has some light profundity within it. The group afflicted on the beach is comprised of people of various ages and ailments. Seeing some grapple with rapid growth and others with sudden physical and mental decline lends an all-encompassing overview of human mortality that could have been explored more thoroughly and elegantly by a more nuanced filmmaker. Even despite Shyamalan’s avoidance of subtlety in just about all he does, the softer moments that are devoid of horror in which characters reflect on their predicament, and experience their various changes, still manage to be some of Old‘s most interesting moments. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, Shyamalan is far more interested in surface level thrills than he is in actually saying anything of depth.
Those surface level thrills are nothing to sneeze at, though. In fact, the variety of thrills and the gruesome nature of what happens to the characters makes for some of the more surprising elements of Old. Considering Shyamalan’s past films have been relatively tame in the violent shock department, it’s surprising how much this film pushes the boundaries of the PG-13 rating. An emergency operation on the beach provides a grotesque bit of body horror that is made further complicated by the nature of the film’s supernatural conceit. And a particularly violent act is a far cry from the muted and subdued stabbing sequence in Shyamalan’s 2004 film, The Village. The grisly situations characters find themselves in almost borders on a level of physical cruelty that has rarely been seen in Shyamalan’s filmography. In many ways, Old is a hodgepodge of Shyamalan’s storytelling shortcomings mixed haphazardly with his directing prowess. So seeing him put characters through the physical wringer is oddly refreshing in its slight newness.
Unfortunately, the uptick in violence is the only part of Old that feels as though it isn’t taken out of the same bag of tricks Shyamalan has been playing with for the last couple decades. One of the most frustrating and confusing dips back into that well is Shyamalan’s continued depiction of mental illness as a catalyst for villainy. The Visit had depictions of dementia and mental disorders as explanations for violence and potential supernatural happenings. Split was a villain origin story with dissociative personality disorder more or less serving as Kevin’s sole character trait. With Old, a character rapidly develops a disorder that affects his cognitive abilities and quickly morphs him into an aggressive and dangerous antagonist.
In the context of Old, what comes out of this character’s sudden development of a mental disorder does fit within the confines of the film’s concept and tracks well enough. It can be argued that it tells a greater narrative about the fear inherent to growing old. But it’s more egregious that Shyamalan continues to mine the real life suffering of people with mental illnesses so he can create characters that wreak havoc and pain on his films’ protagonists. Considering this isn’t a new criticism for Shyamalan, it feels as though he took more care this time around, not to be respectful, but to make this film’s “mental illness creates monster” storyline a better fit for the narrative rather than retiring a repetitive and problematic storytelling device altogether. At best, it’s a tired trope in Shyamalan’s repertoire. At worst, it’s a brazenly offensive storytelling crutch that the filmmaker doesn’t seem keen on adjusting anytime soon.
The mental illness monster narrative isn’t the only Shyamalan trademark to be found in Old. He of course has his requisite self-indulgent featured role, complete with the camera’s lingering shots on his face. One thinks this is so the audience in his mind can recite that not-so-veiled meta “Is that him?” line the kids say in astonishment when he made his appearance in Signs. Whatever the case may be, it’s distracting to say the least.
As is customary with Shyamalan’s work, the dialogue is Old‘s worst offender and the filmmaker’s biggest stumbling block. His insistence on making every seemingly innocuous line come back to pay off in some form later in his films in a failed effort to be clever is simply jarring and ill-fitting in Old. Small lines of foreshadowing come across with the subtlety of a ton of bricks falling on the audience. Vicky Krieps’ Prisca telling her daughter that she can’t wait to hear what her singing voice will be like when she’s older is laughably forced and unnatural. When Prisca and her husband Guy (Gael García Bernal) have an argument in their hotel room and speak mysteriously about an illness, it doesn’t feel like organic character building so much as it’s signaling to the audience that these are breadcrumbs Shyamalan is laying for his inevitable reveals. Even cute scenes of children asking other vacationers what their occupations are have their charm stripped away by Shyamalan’s incessant need to force everything to connect to the greater narrative. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” is an expression with which Shyamalan is clearly unfamiliar.
Even with these various shortcomings, Old does succeed in showcasing Shyamalan’s knack for using the camera to build out his films’ more tense moments. The camera movements in Old help mold the tension in interesting ways. The film has numerous long shots where the camera pans back and forth across a section of the beach whilst characters experience traumatic aging effects. Using this technique to avoid employing aggressive visual effects is secondary to the mounting tension that builds in-camera. It doesn’t work as well when he shoots the children in their intermediate ages between the 6 year old actors and their teenage counterpart’s, however. But when it does work, it’s surprisingly captivating. Likewise, the film goes into a first person perspective when certain characters experience dulled senses due to the rapid aging. This development late in the film helps keep the suspense (that which works, at least) surprisingly fresh.
Of course, as unnecessary as it should be this far into his career, it’s unavoidable to discuss a new M. Night Shyamalan film without paying special attention to the ending. The climax of Old is fairly well executed with at least one unexpected thrill thrown in (and then immediately lightened by unnecessary, over-explanatory dialogue). But for better or worse, it’s the denouement that Shyamalan wants his audience to be drawn toward. Unfortunately, Old‘s final moments are further evidence of Shyamalan’s tendency to get in his own way. It’s fairly straightforward and cookie-cutter by Shyamalan’s own standards and it bears shockingly close resemblance to things he has done in past films. Ultimately, Old‘s conclusion feels rushed and unnecessary when the film’s main focus should have been on the family dynamic instead of the mystery.
M. Night Shyamalan is a filmmaker who seems to be set in his ways as his storytelling faults continue to get in the way of his directing talents. On the surface, Old is an intriguing concept with room for nuanced subtext about mortality, aging, and family bonds. Unfortunately, it’s a story told by someone who continues to eschew subtext in favor of his fixation on achieving the same elusive storytelling surprise that catapulted his career in 1999 and continues to evade him (arguably with the exception of Split) two decades later.
Old opens in theaters nationwide on July 23.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.