Old suffers a bit from Shyamalan’s weaknesses as a writer, but by its end, ranks as one of the director’s weirdest and most poignant works yet.
If there’s a single unifying force behind the films of M. Night Shyamalan, it’s their outright insistence upon requiring a certain amount of openness and good will in order to properly engage; they operate in purely filmic (and, at times, deeply idiosyncratic) terms and express themselves in disjointed tonal variants, which can come off as a bit silly or even amateurish on a superficial level. They also regularly ask for a suspension, not of disbelief, but of belief in logic and order in a lawless universe — in essence, to understand the world outside the structures of intelligible reason. His films concern themselves with the mythic likes of hauntings (The Sixth Sense), superheroes (Unbreakable), and mystical otherworlds (Lady in the Water), treating these subjects with a realistically grounded wonder that suggests their believability isn’t rooted in indexicality, but in one’s own stubborn refusal to understand. Even when his material becomes interested in more human affairs — The Happening outright imagined the breakdown of Western civilization — they’re affairs that delineate from most narrative expectations in ways that reject rigid structural expectations, which is something of an interesting turn from a writer heavily associated with twist endings.
With Old, M. Night Shyamalan once again asks us to believe; yet, there’s little here that requires much faith from the viewer in terms of functionality. If anything, this is one of Shyamalan’s least fantastical episodes — at least on a base thematic level — that just happens to be presented in one of his more personal and visually experimental works, one that finds the quinquagenarian director reflecting on his encroaching mortality in terms only he could define. The basic set-up finds Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) trapped on a secluded island with their two young children — there’s another family and a stray couple that joins shortly after — where they all soon notice that they’re beginning to age at an accelerated rate, a rapidity that finds days flying by in the span of a few seconds. The thematic potency of the concept announces itself nearly immediately, and continues to follow through: specifically, the entangled notions of how life often feels like it can’t move fast enough in youth, only for it to barrel through during adulthood; the growing pains of aging arriving one after another with little fanfare; and the end of childhood innocence located in the eventual loss of one’s elders. The immediate drama of the premise — one explained away as a result of the Earth’s gravity, the literal weight of time being the central antagonist here — is so strong that the narrative progression feels natural and instinctual, with the advent of some new issue plaguing a member of the group as they continue to rapidly deteriorate.
In order to keep up with these natural horrors, Shyamalan employs some of his most freeing and liberating camera movements to date, easily switching between spatial perspectives and interweaving the growing drama. He never seeks to show what would be too ridiculous to pull off (i.e., children turning into adolescents), and he doesn’t foreground his special effects over the more existential issues at hand, taking care to keep the atmosphere, foreboding and intense, in his focus. Even while largely stuck in one shooting location, he makes excellent use of the cinematic space — he genuinely defines it as a physical location, one with a constructed geography and one that operates as a zone outside of order’s control, as the characters’ easy belief in the laws of science and mathematics (Guy is an insurance claimsman who rattles off statistical data about fatal accidents; there’s a doctor in the group who begins to lose his sanity) slowly dissipates. Shyamalan has always been a strong director of actors, often placing them in emotionally vulnerable situations that first appear affectionately obtuse, and here, his cast remains steadfast and committed. Most of the time, in junctures of pure dread (like an unforeseen pregnancy), the shot will just hang there, occasionally pushing forward on the actor’s disheleved face; nothing more is needed, and the effect is palpably felt.
But before we get to the action — the “hook” of the film, you could call it — one must get through Old‘s opening section that ushers in incident, which is… rough, to say the least. Loaded with obvious signifiers that will only meagerly pay off by the end and forced character exposition, this is another reminder of the profound limitations Shyamalan often displays as a writer. He remains committed to his central concept up to a certain point — there’s a beautifully realized bit near the tail end with Bernal and Krieps’ fading couple, whose past misgivings they forgive as they anticipate their eventual ends — but is equally committed to over-explaining the “who” and “why” of this particular situation. One could also understand this as something of a needed cool-down period from the high-wire melodrama that has preceded it, in a similar vein to Hitchock’s Psycho and its notoriously lame ending, but that feels like a stretch considering how long this section lasts. But when Old is freed from such contexts — and if one is willing to believe in M. Night enough to free their personal enjoyment from these anchors — then Old ranks as one of Shyamalan’s most poignant, exploratory, and outright weird cinematic documents yet. To compare him to Hitch just one more time, M. Night has often talked about Alfred’s influence and his tendency to guide the fate of the characters through an unseen hand that was clearly the director’s. It’s fitting, then, that the director’s familiar cameo this time around is that of the travel guide who transports these characters to the films’ paramount location — Shyamalan is, as always, guiding them to their fated ends.