Old review – Shyamalan’s bold vision lacks the magic of earlier works

Old review 2021

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

Anytime M. Night Shyamalan releases a new film it creates great interest. For many years, Shyamalan has created often original films that polarise audiences, be it the strange possible comedy of The Happening, the faux intellect of Lady in the Water, or the grandiose ideas of Glass. With his new film, a loose adaptation of the graphic novel Sandcastle, Shyamalan offers his most off-the-wall film for some time.

The film follows a group of people on an idyllic but secluded beach, who each discover they are aging rapidly. As the numbers begin to succumb to the ravages of excessive aging, the group must figure out how to get off the beach, and what is happening.

There is no faulting a director who makes films that are original and evocative. As far as directing goes, few understand the build-up of tension like Shyamalan or the human touch that is required to make horror and thrills work. In that regard, Old feels like vintage M. Night. Moments of outright horror call to mind some of the more horrific scenes he made his name in, particularly a scene in which someone goes through the effects of blood poisoning in rapid time, or someone’s body betrays them in a cave.

Eliza Scanlen and Aaron Pierre in Old

The issue is with Shyamalan’s writing, he has never been a strong writer of dialogue, and while his ideas are top-notch, his dialogue often lets the film down. While body horror and paranoia take over, there is a sense that the film isn’t certain if the stilted delivering of lines from the cast are on purpose or because the dialogue is a little suspect. To that end, Old does lack some of the more moving scenes of the director’s best work. There’s no scene as emotionally satisfying as the car conversation between Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense, there’s no scene of as subtle brilliance as Bruce Willis sliding a newspaper over to his son in Unbreakable. 

However, the core ideas are terrifying enough that the occasional lapse into silly dialogue doesn’t derail the film entirely. The issue arises when the film betrays its own internal logic. It may seem nit-picking to complain about logic faults in a science fiction film, but films must obey their own logic, and at times it’s unclear what the rules of engagement are. The children, for example, age rapidly while the adults don’t, owing to how aging works but only their physical bodies change. Yet, the three children appear to gain knowledge that older children would use – how would a five-year-old child know what sex is? Why does the three-year-old stop acting like she’s three? They state that hair doesn’t grow on the island because it’s dead tissue but one of the characters at the end has a five o’clock shadow…

It also doesn’t help that the film’s reveal is taken from previous Shyamalan films, though it works decidedly more in this film that previous entries into his filmography. Moreover, the ongoing demonisation of the mentally ill in Shyamalan films is made worse by his fundamental misunderstanding of what paranoid schizophrenia is. The character in question is clearly suffering from early onset dementia, but the film decides it’s schizophrenia and that makes the character a violent nutter. By the end the question arises about why it’s not dementia also but that’s a spoiler.

But, as with most of Shyamalan’s work, there are brilliant moments. Those scares mentioned are brilliantly handled, as well as his mastering of the surreal by use of camera work, a scene involving the sound of bones is shudder inducing and he knows how to stage a look away death scene life few others. 

Despite his penchant for non-naturalistic acting which at times undermines the emotion he’s striving for, the cast are generally very good. Both Vicky Krieps and Gael Garcia Bernal are brilliant in the opening scenes, setting up the dynamic of the family so that we buy into their relationship and the family as a whole, while Alex Wolff has spent the last few years perfecting his wide eyed terror face which gets great use here. Similarly Thomasin McKenzie continues her crusade to become the best part of any given film she’s in – it bodes well for her turn in Edgar Wright’s next film. While he’s more towards the silly side, Rufus Sewell’s abrasive doctor is also served well by the actor’s natural ability to make anything sound plausible in his velvet-tinged voice.

By the end, the film probably won’t win any coverts over to the Shyamalan camp, it’s far too disjointed, weird, and filled with plotholes. But like Lynch, Shyamalan at least tries new things, and in a world of franchise movies, remakes and sure-fire works, it’s great that a director can keep coming forwards with bold takes on weird ideas and at least try his best to deliver something new.  He might not have captured the magic of those early movies, but Old is definitely not tired, and will find that audience who love it.

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Paul Klein

Paul is Film & Media Editor @ No Majesty. Paul is a Film Studies Graduate from London, and former writer at The Metropolist.