M. Night Shyamalan’s harshest critics might argue he has not made a good film since The Sixth Sense. Certainly, one’s mileage may vary when it comes to the Philadelphia director’s work. Movies such as Signs or The Village have proven divisive. Lady in the Water and The Happening are generally regarded as terrible.
Still, Shyamalan’s reputation seemed on a somewhat upward trajectory following Split and The Visit. But his latest, Old, proves to be the summation of his entire body of work since Haley Joel Osment saw dead people: decent ideas hampered by subpar writing and execution. Despite flashy cinematography (at times overly flashy), Old is an overall frustrating exercise.
Old follows a family taking an island vacation looking to get away from their problems. There are hints of both medical issues and familial strife before the family is invited to a more exclusive, private beach. There they are joined by a few other families, and quickly all is not as it seems.
Shyamalan knows that people expect twists from his films. For once, he does not seem to hide the fact that something is amiss. The idea that something strange going on is introduced early and followed through on, if not necessarily satisfactorily.
Despite leaning into his reputation, Shyamalan’s script is a jumbled mess of concepts and ideas. The central gimmick of the film — people aging rapidly — makes for some creepy moments here and there, and Shyamalan shows that he can direct a good horror sequence or two. Yet in Old it feels like Shyamalan is poorly aping the styles of Ari Aster and Jordan Peele. His attempts at Peele’s social commentary feel aimless. Likewise, his exploration of the horror of human situations, which Aster does so well, is half-baked here. You can feel Old trying to keep up with the cream of the modern horror-movie crop with its showy camerawork and even the casting of Alex Wolff. Yet he can’t write a film anywhere near as good as those.
As the film progresses, Old attempts to capture a sense of growing paranoia and tension, as well as meld in all of these aforementioned ideas. An off-kilter film to begin with, it stops feeling controlled and purposeful and loses its way. By the time the story reaches its conclusion and the big reveals are made, you twist your head in confusion wondering what the point of all it was.
So many concepts are laid out that you struggle to understand what exactly Shyamalan was aiming for. There are hints of anti big-pharma, hints of a meta-commentary on filmmaking (M. Night plays the biggest role he’s played in one of his own films thus far), and hints of the human experience. Lots of stilted dialogue involves people’s careers and the related ethics of them. It all adds up to something less than clear, though.
It is fun seeing Shyamalan really try to come up with creative shots. There are multiple rapid circular shots and pans. He also plays with foreground and background focus and directs us to particular points in the frame as characters move around. Unfortunately, it feels a bit film-student-like as Shyamalan does not seem to use his shots with much purpose. Perhaps this was meant to convey the meta-commentary-on-filmmaking angle, but again, everything is too muddy to be sure.
There are decent actors in this film. Rufus Sewell is good as ever as a stuck-up British prick. Vicky Krieps also does good work in her role, bringing to life one of the truly emotional scenes in the film. None of the cast can really be faulted for the issues in the movie, as they deliver the rather clunky dialogue as best as they can.
Old is a frustrating affair on the whole. Once more Shyamalan proves that his scripts need more read-overs, since whatever interesting ideas get raised tend to go nowhere satisfactory. It is a pretty film for sure, but I walk away wishing someone else had written and directed these ideas. Hopefully Shyamalan will recover from this misstep and get back on the road to peak form.
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