M. Night Shyamalan’s film ‘Old’ thrills, but fumbles in conveying universal fears

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

“Old,” M. Night Shyamalan’s latest vacation horror flick, is horrifying on a couple counts. The longer the film’s characters stay, the more they age — roughly one year every half-hour — a stage set for body horrors equally ridiculous and violating.

In this cleanly shot film, Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), along with their two children, show up at an island resort that appears almost too good to be true. The family is directed to a dreamy and secluded beach by an oily hotelier. Joining them are an epileptic psychiatrist (Nikki Amuka-Bird); her husband who is a nurse (Ken Leung); and a racist, schizophrenic doctor (Rufus Sewell) and his family. They race across the sand, dishing out diagnoses of the strange events befalling them. Lap one: group psychosis. Lap two: a tumor. So on and — hold on — is that a dead body? 

Rest easy. The order above has been scrambled, but the thrills packed in this film come in ample supply, alongside a serving of social experiment vibes. As Guy and Prisca’s rapidly aging son, Trent (played as a child by Luca Faustino Rodriguez, a teenager by Alex Wolff and an adult by Emun Elliott)​​, tells anyone who will listen — mostly his sister, Maddox (Alexa Swinton, Thomasin McKenzie and Embeth Davidtz, in the same order) — that a camera is keeping watch from a nearby hill. It sees the kids’ pants grow tight, the parents’ minds grow dull and the elderly wither, giving Shyamalan fodder for unsettling scenes but nonetheless falling in dead spots.

In one very biblical scene, the doctor’s daughter, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), a model-type character whose clothes are both scant and flowing, discovers how fleeting beauty is. And yet the scene fizzles, predictable and without a twist, with a figure of disfigurement lifted from eons of horror. “Flesh is fickle,” the saying goes. “Old” refutes this but, like its other commentary, is overshadowed by an overindulgence in freakishness.

The story bubbles in the middle with an errant whodunit, then pops under the pressure of its themes — philosophical, biblical and other. The whodunit is a relatively easy task, especially when given a helping hand by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis. First one dead body, then another is washed ashore. By the end there are none. Agatha Christie might have given Shyamalan a nod of approval. 

The film’s philosophy, however, is not so simple, and Shyamalan can’t stitch together a full-fledged narrative around it. Rather, he relies on the horror of the rocks surrounding the beach — stoic and cold, in contrast to the sunny island — that trap the islanders. Shyamalan comes after a few fears he believes are universal: time, and how running out of it hastens fights for redemption and love. It’s like the way quarantine accelerated relationships, but deadly! 

Yet, “Old” is too hurried to explore time and too clumsy to explore redemption and the irredeemable. All those marooned on the beach aren’t quite perfect people below the surface — more fodder, and Shyamalan forgets a match. Guy, an actuary ready to list statistics on furniture-related injuries, has no idea what book Prisca is reading; their marriage is on the fritz. Also, still an unconscionable racist dealing with stress at work, the doctor finds his schizophrenia boiling over in a dubious sketch of mental health involving a Black artist (Aaron Pierre) who goes by the name “Mid-Sized Sedan.”

The narrative on racism is bungled, while the marriage gets even less attention than what Guy and Prisca give it. No smoke from the stack, no steam through the engine and “Old” goes nowhere. When the chances for resonant horrors arise, it slips through grotesque fingers. Shyamalan’s film is made of drama that can’t break the wall between mind and heart.

All in all, “Old” feels violating but not disturbing. The weak narrative places the sacred horrors of rationality beyond its fingers. The psychotic and old-school, seat-squirming horrors burrow into the mind but are never powerful enough to pierce the heart and mind. The film’s idea of sophisticated horrors prove to be too high for Shyamalan — an exceptional thrillist, but a wanting storyteller. 

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].