There is a movie inside Old that flows organically out of its characters, driven by their fears, desires, and regrets, generating a clear-eyed and affecting metaphor for the speed with which life passes us by, and our inherent unwillingness to slow down long enough to savor every moment. It’s as eloquent a thematic underpinning as M. Night Shyamalan, the film’s writer-director, has crafted in years. What’s unfortunate, however, is that these themes are encased inside the broader scope of the film, which – befitting Shyamalan’s overriding preoccupation – is an over-designed piece of narrative machinery.
Ever since the overwhelming success of The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has been thought of as “The Twist Guy” by the inattentive masses, but his narrative and stylistic point-of-view is much broader than simply building to a single, final plot twist. To the contrary, he is more of a galaxy-brain writer, viewing each screenplay as an elaborate, rigorously controlled concoction, applying the expectation of surprise as only one of its tools. Another tool is human emotion, which is always at the heart of a Shyamalan film, though it’s so at the mercy of the broader intricate plot that you’d be inclined to think he stumbled upon it by accident, but he’s too much of a control freak for that to be the case.
Old is particularly frustrating in this context because its heartbeat is so apparent. It presents a very unique exploration of the human tendency to take every-day mundanity for granted that works perfectly through Shyamalan’s inimitable metaphorical horror prism. Yet every moving emotional stroke is undercut by the filmmaker’s insatiable desire to strap a literal and labyrinthine explanation around the high concept framework in which these emotions are imprisoned.
Per the title, Old’s high concept involves the mysterious and sinister forces of rapid aging on a disparate group of tourists thrust together on a cursed side trip from their lavish tropical resort. This Stagecoach-ian group of diverse individuals is populated by a sterling cast of unlikely blockbuster stars – Vicky Krieps, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Rufus Sewell among them – who lend a gravity to the film’s otherwise brazen formal oddity. They do, inevitably, fall subject to Shyamalan’s very distinctive direction of acting, which results in characters who are very particularly mannered in a way that feels only quasi-human. But Krieps’ ability to remain straight-faced while uttering sentences like, “I’m not a forensic pathologist, but based on excavations from the museum…” only serve to affirm her monumental talent.
The island’s cryptic pull drives the film’s escalating suspense. Craftily, the screenplay slow-plays the menace, playing on audience anticipation before diving into full-on hysteria. But then the three kids on the island each age 5 years in the blink of an eye, lending a new meaning to the phrase, “where has the time gone?” The conceit functions unnervingly well as an allegory, even if it’s slightly on-the-nose : a mirroring of the hurtling passage of time while we remain stubbornly focused on trivialities. The personification of the island as a malevolent entity is effective, and the collective panic among adults forced to literally reckon with their own mortality is palpable.
If only Shyamalan had the restraint to leave it there, a quick and intimate meditation on life passing us by while we look the other way, Old could’ve been his most intriguing work. Instead, he feels compelled to suspend his story’s emotional core inside an ungainly narrative contraption by which the screenplay can conveniently and laboriously explain every last mystery until the film morphs into a pastiche of half-baked ideas taken from whatever books Shyamalan read over quarantine. Old, like far too many Shyamalan films, wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Its ambition is undeniable, but its overreach is unmistakable.