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M. Night Shyamalan returns with Old, a floppy but haunting thriller about aging

It’s at its best when it’s at its weirdest.

A close-up of Gael García Bernal’s face. He looks confused.
Gael García Bernal is pretty confused in Old.
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Few things are more delightful than a movie with one big, silly concept that it runs right into the ground. Plot? Who needs it! Character development? Unnecessary. The ship is sinking and everyone needs to get off; huge man-eating ants or giant earth-shaking worms threaten humankind; the zombies are headed this way. Movies like this conjure a world in which everything is a little senseless and absurd. No matter who you are, you might live a long and fulfilling life, or you might get stomped on by a dinosaur. The human condition, in two hours.

Old, the latest thriller from the endlessly inventive — if not always successful — director M. Night Shyamalan, spends a lot of its runtime being this sort of movie. It spoils nothing to say it’s a movie where sudden and uncontrollable aging is the problem (just look at the title), and the characters are preoccupied with figuring out how to escape it.

That said, if you wish to avoid actual spoilers, bow out now.

The reason for the aging is not entirely clear — it seems to be caused by the beach Old’s characters are vacationing on, or maybe a cliff that surrounds it? In any case, as aging comes for us all, so it comes, at an accelerated pace, for those who’ve arrived at this little cove just looking for a refreshing day near the water. There’s Guy (Gael García Bernal) and his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), whose marriage is on the rocks, and their two young children: 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and his 11-year-old sister Maddox (Alexa Swinton). Jarin (Ken Leung), a nurse, is also there, as is his psychiatrist wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird). Another family completes the group: a doctor (Rufus Sewell), his beautiful wife (Abbey Lee), her mother (Kathleen Chalfant), and 6-year-old Kara (Kylie Begley).

Four figures on a beach. They look toward the water, and appear confused.
Aaron Pierre, Vicky Krieps, Gael García Bernal, and Abbey Lee in Old. Don’t get stranded in a cove, folks.
Universal Pictures

Everyone in the group is staying at a nearby resort, and they’ve been brought to the secluded beach by one of the resort employees. (Keeping with tradition, Shyamalan himself plays that role.) When they arrive on the beach, there’s only one other person there, sitting crouched and quiet near the giant cliff that looms above. Maddox, to her delight, recognizes him: He’s a rapper, and in perhaps the movie’s most delightful twist, his stage name is “Mid-Sized Sedan.” (He’s played by Aaron Pierre, who was devastating as Caesar in Amazon’s recent miniseries The Underground Railroad.)

They set up their coolers and chairs and sit a while, but then things start getting ... weird. Really weird. They find a body, to their horror. A small, benign tumor in Prisca’s abdomen starts growing. The doctor begins saying weird things. Wounds don’t act right. Leaving the beach seems impossible. The kids start springing into adolescence without warning. (They are played, at various ages, by Luca Faustino Rodriguez, Mikaya Fisher, Little Women’s Eliza Scanlen, Hereditary’s Alex Wolff, and Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie.)

There’s a lot to like about Old, especially its slow, measured movement. The movie crafts a vast, sunny, sweaty landscape of dread. Shyamalan’s particular visual sense, which favors unexpected framings that produce interesting images, is on full display, even when it’s hampered by the fact that the characters are simply on a beach, with little to look at that isn’t in the background. For much of the movie, the characters have figured out what’s happening to them, even if they don’t know why, and the action is all in their attempts to escape either the island or the inevitable.

But it’s also the epitome of a “your mileage may vary” experience. Shyamalan has not grown any more skilled at writing dialogue over the years, and while stilted dialogue can work in some circumstances (in 2004’s The Village, it eventually made sense), it doesn’t pay off here. It’s not Old’s constant exposition that’s the problem so much as the unending, clunky over-explanation. Do kids really need to be told what their parent means when they shout “Run! Hide!”?

That screenplay (or perhaps some bad direction) seems to tie the hands of Old’s very fine cast behind their backs. In the film’s best moments, though, I found myself thinking of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, in which a group of wealthy people find themselves trapped in a drawing room, mysteriously unable to escape as their psyches, relationships, and veneer of civilization slowly disintegrate. That film is baldly allegorical and obviously satirical, surreal in ways that are haunting even after it’s over. Its refusal to really explain what’s going on is unsettling.

Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps on the beach, with a yellow umbrella behind them.
Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps in Old.
Universal Pictures

In its last act and the coda that follows, Old becomes more sentimental, more of a family drama than the film seemed to be at the start — and then, all of a sudden, it turns into something like science fiction. The change-up is not exactly a twist, but in an M. Night Shyamalan film, it’s not unexpected. You know going in that there’s going to be more to the story, that you’ll eventually find out what’s going on with the ... oldness. That’s why the film’s trailer shows so much of its hand; it knows audiences will be intrigued by whatever is actually happening. This guy directed The Sixth Sense, after all. There’s got to be an explanation.

There is, indeed, an explanation — but I kind of wish there wasn’t. For most of Old, the sheer weirdness of the setup is what’s so compelling. The movie is loosely based on the graphic novel Sandcastle, by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, which has quite a different ending than the film and one that, for my money, is more satisfying.

While the logic Old provides makes sense, I can imagine a better movie that ends 20 minutes earlier and gives fewer answers, leaving us with more of the unnerving, wistful sadness that always comes along with stories about aging and mortality. I think of movies like She Dies Tomorrow, which don’t bother to offer explanations and thus, I’d argue, better mimic what they’re trying to evoke: the absurdity and tragedy of life.

In making a plot pivot and then meticulously explaining itself, Old is peak Shyamalan — a little sentimental, a little surprising, a little labored. When compared to his recent movies like Glass and Split, it’s still eerily spare, a mode that suits him well. And the moments when Old is cranking into high-concept gear are fun to watch and disquieting.

Being old is not, in itself, any worse or better than being young. Yet the feeling that time is slipping away, that the sand in the hourglass is falling fast, will induce existential angst in the best of us. When one of Old’s characters laments, at one point, that it’s simply not fair that they’ve missed so many milestones in life because of this beach, they’re not wrong. Frankly, after the pandemic year we’ve just been through — and given the looming uncertainty of the future — who can’t relate?

So at its best points, Old taps into something primal. Isn’t life ultimately a high-concept horror movie, in which the concept is we’re all going to die?

Old is currently in theaters.

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