By Tyler Gibson
M. Night Shyamalan is one of the few household names when it comes to mainstream filmmakers. That level of notoriety means every new release is preceded in equal measures of scorn and anticipation. Old, his most formally audacious and narratively mastered film, provides fuel to the fire of both sides.
A playful first act dictated by Shyamalan’s hallmarks of a storyteller (precocious children, angular exposition) teases what’s to come. An innocent family of four arrives at an opulent resort on the beach. Almost immediately mother and father (respectively portrayed by Vicky Krieps and Gael García Bernal) trade barbs about the future of their relationship. Gradually this tension regarding time is reconciled literally when they reach the evidently ominous beach. There, they cross paths with a family of three with their grandmother and a mature couple all battling emotional and medical problems of their own. Naturally, spookiness and chaos ensue as the characters begin to suffer mysterious bodily reactions to their surroundings.
In the past Shyamalan has been mocked for his ego, however he’s an artist of deep empathy. Despite the film’s sordid premise, Shyamalan opts to plunge into the interior depth of his characters and their existentialism instead of rattling off vulgar scares at their expense. That isn’t to say the film is lacking horrific imagery. On the contrary, there’s numerous mind-melting moments of terror including a bloody surgery and a brief glimpse at distorted limbs. Young actress and future star Eliza Scanlen is featured in the film’s two largest set pieces– a breathlessly executed pregnancy and a grueling rock-climbing escape. These moments linger rather than dissolve due to the genuine sincerity in direction. Much like The Happening, one of Shyamalan’s most mocked films, Old deals with the irrational rationality of extreme situations with straight-faced endearment and how humans behave alien-like when facing the inevitability of death. Here, movies are discussed to offset and process the impending dread and absurdity. The script is patient and theatrically dialogue-heavy like prime Shyamalan films such as Unbreakable which creates a profundity that allows for those necessary character beats and interactions. The film digs deep into human nature and its ugliness as the characters argue, accuse, then ultimately come together through communication. Gobsmacking aesthetics elevate these conversations with zeal. The camera is seamlessly stacked askew into gonzo angles that seem incomprehensible after oppressive and menacingly helpless zooms and agitating tracking shots and pans instigate the beach. Frames that recall the work of Ingmar Bergman are mathematically blocked by bodies frozen in specific and physical positions. Sometimes body parts and faces are cut off and relegated to the corners to dazzling effect. Films are simply not orchestrated with such simultaneous rigid and experimental craft like this anymore. This should be a magical treasure to behold for any passionate filmgoer.
A needlessly goofy (even for Shyamalan) epilogue threatens to undercut a startling heartfelt grace note, though it’s understandable the film yearns for a hopeful salvation after 90 minutes of dread. What begins as gleeful camp transforms into emotional melodrama that reflects on the human spirit and aging with remarkable purity. The offbeat nature and Shyamalan’s stigma will result in this film being perceived as “so bad, it’s good”, but Old is a genuinely great film made with open-hearted candor and an adventurous visual eye. This is cinematic nirvana and the most unconventional mainstream studio release since Darren Aronofsky’s similarly divisive mother! in 2017.