The varied career of M. Night Shyamalan has been a complicated yet fascinating one. He is a writer-director who can go from the initial highest of highs with films like 1999’s The Sixth Sense, to the lowest of lows with the baffling life-action The Last Airbender adaptation from 2010.
Through it all, there has remained the undeniable potential of his distinct vision that makes him a wholly original filmmaker whether you fully connect with him or not. That is why it is a joy to be able to say that not only is Old one of his best works of recent memory—it is one of the best films that he has made over his entire career. It is a film that almost entirely subsumes the senses as it captures you in its grasp.
The foremost reason for this is how in command Shyamalan is. He has taken an effectively straightforward story about a group of people who find themselves trapped on a secluded beach that begins to rapidly age them, and teased every last drop of existential dread out of it. The result is the rare film where a director utilizes all of the tools at his disposal to craft the most unsettling experience possible. Each technical element is expertly used to create an overwhelming sense of terror that feels like it is gradually melting your mind with every passing minute. Shyamalan’s flowing camera work deserves note for how unhinging it is.
In the case of the film’s tragic characters, every passing minute becomes an hour, an hour becomes a year, a year becomes a decade, and a decade becomes a lifetime. The film, adapted from the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, focuses on the terrifying prospect of seeing your life pass by in the blink of an eye with seemingly no chance to stop it. That feeling of helplessness takes a toll on the characters, and Shyamalan excavates this growing panic with a delicate hand. As the characters move through the many stages of grief, you feel the inevitable sense of loss that is hurtling towards them.
In the case of the film’s tragic characters, every passing minute becomes an hour, an hour becomes a year, a year becomes a decade, and a decade becomes a lifetime.
What makes the film so effective is seeing the characters attempt to find solutions to their predicament and see them fail one after the other. They are actively trying to save themselves and, in the case of the parents, their children however they can. It makes every subsequent failure fall like dominoes into each other as it becomes clear that their fate is becoming increasingly bleak. The simple idea of just leaving the beach is not possible as they are stopped by a splitting headache that causes a blackout and puts them right back where they started. There may be a way out, though whether they can find it in time depends entirely on if they can think outside the box. Their survival is made harder by a rising panic that will soon become untenable for many of the characters who begin to completely lose grasp of their sanity.
It is unfortunate that many of the characters are not entirely well served by the story, only getting the lightest of characterization and depth. In particular, Aaron Pierre as the rapper Mid-Sized Sedan is reduced to largely being a punchline because of his name even as he clearly has more going on underneath the surface. The same could be said of Nikki Amuka-Bird's Patricia and Ken Leung's Jarin, a duo who puts in the most effort to try to save everyone. Obviously, the structure of the story is such that limited time is spent with many of these characters as they watch their time run out. However, there still could have been more evenly distributed development granted to build up all of the characters.
The central focus of the film is the main family of Gael García Bernal’s Guy and Vicky Krieps’s Prisca. The couple is there with their children Maddox and Trent, both of whom are played by multiple actors, who are largely unaware of their parents' relationship problems. They hear yelling and fighting, though they don't understand what is informing it. That serves as the backdrop for the impending threat the family will face which makes all these problems seem trite in comparison. It ends up being far more emotionally impactful than I was expecting. Shyamalan captures the family’s strained relationship with each other with a refreshing degree of nuance, even as some of the lines of dialogue don’t always land.
The cast themselves is all outstanding and do exactly what they need to do, even with some of the less than natural sounding dialogue. Of special note are Alex Wolff as Trent and Thomasin McKenzie as Maddox. Both actors must capture the mentality of children even as they are in adult bodies. The effect is upsetting, yet a testament to their performances that it works so well. This is especially true of Wolff who, fresh off his role in the brilliant Pig, feels almost unrecognizable. He has many of the moments that are most alarming, and he executes them perfectly. He captures the emotional chaos and sadness of the situation during some of the most heightened moments without missing a beat in a uniquely demanding performance.
When both children must come to terms with the fact that time is running out for their parents, the film leans on all of the cast to deliver—which they do. Bernal and Krieps talking with each other as they look back on their lives is a rare moment of quiet reflection that’s deeply affecting. Even as the ending wraps things up a little bit too cleanly to explain why all of this is happening, it is the emotional moments that make Old as good as it is. Whether it is the fear of death or the sadness of losing those you love, that is where the film resonates. It is unfortunate that the film didn’t sit with these moments more, and instead gave into the impulse to tie things up in a bow. Still, however flawed its ending is, it can’t take away from all that the film has going for it. The prevailing strengths are more than enough to smooth over any of the film’s rough edges and leave a beautifully polished final piece.
An outstanding testament to how Shyamalan still has many more stories to tell as a writer and director, Old is an unnerving film that won’t easily be forgotten.
You can see Old in theaters starting today, July 23.