No matter where you stand on M. Night Shyamalan's diverse catalogue of high-concept thrillers, there's no denying the guy has managed to carve out his own, distinct genre. That the results vary in their effectiveness is indisputable, but there's a lot to respect about an artist that single-mindedly crafts each new offering, seemingly unaware of (or at least indifferent towards) its place in the zeitgeist and the inevitable backlash that looms after every new release. Somewhat disappointingly, Old sits somewhere around the middle of his filmography for me. There's a lot to like about this nasty and awkward little story, although the self-imposed expectation of The Twist™ (which he seems almost contractually obliged to include now) forces him to tie up more narrative threads than he needs to, resulting in a regrettably clumsy finish.
Like any decent high-concept film, the story is summarised easily. Guy and Prisca Cappa (Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps) and their children Maddox and Trent take a vacation to a luxurious seaside resort, where they are offered a private day-trip to a secluded beach along with another couple of families. Soon after arriving, the group realises something is very wrong; specifically, time does not behave on this beach. After noticing that the children are ageing rapidly, the grown-ups do some conveniently sharp-minded mathematics and realise they need to find a way off this beach before time runs out. And it's running fast. It's a neat, tricksy idea (based on Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters' graphic novel Sandcastle) that does a lot of heavy-lifting by itself, but Shyamalan's technical mastery, when coupled with some of his trademark quirks, amplify the paranoia and hysteria.
The deliberately wooden, almost other-worldly dialogue present in many of his films is pervasive here. In a similar way to the stilted delivery of speech in Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Deer, the way the characters relate to each other, even within an immediate family, sets the tone askew straight away. If you're not willing to inhabit this contrived reality from the get-go, you may find Old endlessly frustrating (and for good reason). I chose early on to find it endearing, which unearthed some genuinely funny moments that broke up the mayhem in some surprising ways. In that sense, the film is entirely aware of how preposterous the premise is, but challenges you to imagine how people in this desperately unenviable situation would behave differently.
Regardless, even if you're not willing to get on board and find the tone amateurish, there are a number of beautifully choreographed and disorienting long one-shot takes that might just change your mind. Consider the unsettling reality of watching your life and the lives of those around you (including complete strangers) quite literally pass before your eyes. The various characters undergo drastic changes in a matter of minutes that normally develop over decades. Shyamalan positions the camera in such a way that places you at eye-level with the others, darting from one end of the beach to the other, making a series of impossible decisions about who to help next as their pleas erupt all around. While certainly not in the least bit overtly scary, there's an unsettling sense of dread throughout, as not only the characters' situations deteriorate, but also their ability to deal with them.
And then there's The Twist™. Ah, The Twist™. So intrinsically is Shyamalan's reputation linked to the final act of his films that he almost guarantees some disappointment whether he includes one or not. As is the case with some of his previous work (like Signs and The Sixth Sense) there are probably enough breadcrumbs scattered throughout the narrative to at least piece together a partial prediction of the final revelation on the first watch. When he is comfortable with these fragments being the totality of the climax, his work really soars. However, in Old, he insists on continuing to justify that Not All Is As It Seems to an exhaustive extent, long after the rug is pulled. Some slightly less underlined foreshadowing earlier on might have negated the need to provide so much of an explanation. Just let the scary beach be a scary beach.
Shyamalan's films are among the most polarising of the last twenty years; it's almost impossible to find two people who would rank his work similarly, or even agree on the relative quality of each film. His output includes one of my favourite movies of all time (The Village) and one of the worst experiences I've ever had in a cinema (The Happening). I've had friends say they laughed themselves stupid (for the wrong reasons) throughout the former and that the latter is more harshly criticised than it deserves. Ultimately, the way you've engaged with his work in the past is the only thing that could possibly predict how you'll feel about Old, and even then you might surprise yourself. What I can guarantee is that you'll never have seen anything like it before. And maybe that you'll complain less in the future about not having enough hours in the day.
Old is in cinemas now.