movie review

M. Night Shyamalan’s Old Is Beautifully Made and Terribly Written

The Sixth Sense director still has a way with sinister shots, but is oddly invested in having the audience care about his cardboard characters. Photo: Universal Pictures

M. Night Shyamalan can make a shot of palm trees sinister, just by the way he moves a camera. Old opens with fronds dancing in front of a bright sky, and then transitions to the vacationing family on the road below, as though the humans are already an afterthought, fodder for the high concept horror awaiting them. Shyamalan’s always been great on a granular level, crafting shots that place you in the mindset of the characters, or, in the case of this new film, decidedly outside of it. The Sixth Sense goes careening in sympathetic terror down the hallway after a retreating Haley Joel Osment, only to reverse and show us what he sees — the bathrobed ghost starting after him — before closing up his blanket fort. Signs holds on Joaquin Phoenix’s face, shifting with him as he tries to get a better look at what he doesn’t yet know is an alien on the roof, only for the creature to jump down off-screen, out of sight of the characters as well as that subjective lens, leaving rustling corn and a creaking swing in its wake.

In contrast, Old makes a repeating motif of the camera panning horizontally across the beach on which the characters are stuck, and treating their faces with the same indifference as the landscape. It’s so nicely done that it takes a while to admit to what a bummer the movie is, caught between brutal exercise and metaphor for the fleeting nature of time. It doesn’t care about its characters, but tries to pretend it does in the end, in what feels like a blatant failure of nerve. They’re barely characters, is the thing — more of a collection of professional titles, with Trent (Nolan River), the 6-year-old baby of the family, having a conveniently precocious habit of asking everyone he meets what their name and occupation are. Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a psychologist, while her husband, Jarin (Ken Leung), is a nurse. Aaron Pierre plays a rapper whose name is, spectacularly, Mid-Sized Sedan, and Rufus Sewell is Charles, a doctor. Charles’s spouse, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), isn’t given a chance to describe her career, though an accurate description would be something like “trophy wife.” Their daughter, Kara (Kyle Bailey), is with them, as is Charles’s mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant).

Trent’s older sister, Maddow (Alexa Swinton), is 11 and not yet working age (the children are played by additional actors as they get older), but their parents, Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), talk about their jobs the way some people talk about their astrological signs. “​​You’re always thinking about the past! You work in a goddamn museum!” Guy yells at Prisca early on, and later explains his perspective on the world to another character by noting that, as an actuary, he calculates risk. This picture-book-simple shorthand to introducing an ensemble would feel less clumsy if the intent were only to kill off the characters one by one, but Old is intent on trying to make its audience care about its primary foursome, and the way that Guy and Prisca have been teetering on the precipice of divorce. The beach vacation is meant to be a three-day reprieve, a way of avoiding thinking about the couple’s impending separation, and also the supposedly benign abdominal tumor Prisca recently discovered.

A day after arriving at the island resort (“Can you believe I found this online?” Prisca gloats ominously), the manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) offers the family a chance to visit a secluded beach on the neighboring nature preserve, an opportunity he claims to only give to guests he likes. It should be clear that something’s awry from the moment the impossible-to-like Charles and his family enter the van, but the group proceeds to the beach under the guidance of their driver, played by Shyamalan himself. As the man responsible for ushering the victims onto the deadly beach, and later observing them from afar, the character is clearly a kind of directorial stand-in. But despite the self-acknowledged sadism of the set-up, in which the beach’s inhabitants slowly realize they are aging about two years an hour, there’s a timidity to the film that makes it exasperating. Old is adapted from Sandcastle, a graphic novel by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters that has a more ambiguous tilt, and the movie never squares its desire for body horror with its late impulse to have its characters try to reconcile their differences and reflect on what’s actually important.

There’s a death of imaginative gruesomeness, an instance of emergency surgery, and a disturbingly accelerated pregnancy, but there are also long, tedious freak-outs from characters lacking the dimension to merit them. Shyamalan, who’s been working his way back toward bigger budget productions ever since breaking himself out of movie jail with 2015’s The Visit, feels caught between the more emotionally considered movies he used to make, and the leaner, meaner ones he’s done more recently. His filmmaking can’t make up for the fact that Old is hovering indecisively between the two halves of his career, unable to commit to either direction.

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M. Night Shyamalan’s Old: Beautifully Made, Terribly Written