‘Old’ Review: Time Flies In Shyamalan’s Latest Thriller
Whether it’s addressed onscreen or not, every movie is in some way about time: How it flows, how it’s slowed down or sped by up through clever editing, That’s part of the magic of film; it can break us out of the methodical, linear flow of time we all experience in our everyday existence. It’s not uncommon for a movie to show a character’s entire life in a couple of hours, but M. Night Shyamalan’s Old does it a little differently. Instead of giving us snippets from an entire lifetime, it traps a group of people on a mysterious beach where time moves more quickly than it does on the rest of the planet. Stay on the beach for 30 minutes and you age about a year. Hang out for a whole day, and your entire life could flash before your eyes in the most literal way possible.
Of course, this being an M. Night Shyamalan movie, you can‘t just pack up your towel and leave the beach once you realize you’re aging faster than you should. Some unseen force keeps people on this secluded strip of sand. Try to retrace your steps back to the road and you black out and wake up on the beach again. Pretty much every means of escape is blocked. All you can do is stay on the beach, and age, and die.
That makes it an ideal setting for a fable about mortality, and in Old’s first act, that’s exactly what Shyamalan sets up. A family — dad Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), mom Prisca (Vicky Krieps), 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton), and six-year-old Trent (Nolan River) — arrive at a posh island resort for an all-inclusive vacation. The kids seem happy, but there’s an unspoken tension between Guy and Prisca that lingers in glances and awkward silences. They make brief references to marital troubles, and maybe even a serious medical condition. But hey: The hotel has drinks waiting for them when they arrive and there’s a 24-hour candy bar. It’s paradise!
The next morning, the hotel manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) lets the family in on a secret: The resort sits near an idyllic beach with soft sand and picturesque waves. Only special guests get to visit. Would they be interested? They would. Several other travelers join them there, including a middle-aged cardiac surgeon (Rufus Sewell), his much-younger wife (Abbey Lee) and daughter (Kyle Bailey), and a cheerful nurse (Ken Leung) and his wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who suffers from epileptic seizures. When they arrive at their destination, they find a man (Aaron Pierre) already sitting amongst the rocks. His nose won’t stop bleeding. (He’s also a famous rapper named “Mid-Sized Sedan,” which might be a more surreal development than any of the aging effects that follow.) Then the first dead body washes ashore.
Shymalan is an underrated visual storyteller. As the tension mounts, he puts the camera right in the middle of the doomed vacationers, often positioning them in a circle as he slowly wheels the frame around to observe their rapidly wrinkling faces — as if the actors are the hour markings on a clock and the camera is one of its hands, ticking away. In other scenes, he swings the lens between two connected events taking place in different spots on the beach, evoking the image of a metronome swinging back and forth. As the children mature into adolescence and adulthood, he hides their faces and bodies as long as he can, then reveals their transformations in unexpected and unsettling moments.
In other words, Old’s got all pieces it needs to become a top-shelf thriller. The notion of going from a child to middle-age overnight is ludicrous, but fears about getting older are not, and the cast Shyamalan assembled features all kinds of fascinating archetypes to graft those anxieties onto, from the trophy wife who worries about losing her looks to the married couple who were happy in the past but seem headed for a breakup in the future. But once the supernatural intrudes on their lives it never lets up — shocking incidents pass almost as quickly as years do on that beach. A corpse floats into view, the kids begin growing at an alarming rate, the dead body turns into a rotting skeleton in a matter of minutes, and so on.
At that point, forget using this story as a metaphor for time’s cruel march. The characters don’t even have time to digest the last terrible twist before two more insane things happen, much less bring any kind of relatable human element to the story. Shyamalan’s so overloaded their day at the beach that nothing leaves much of an impact. Sure, aging really fast leads to some gruesome setpieces, and one or two are really inventive. (The scene that involves what a knife does to skin that heals instantly is a trip.) When everything in a movie is pitched at that same intense level, though, it wears you out.
The obvious comparison for this sort of supernatural parable — particularly when it comes from a twist-loving filmmaker like Shyamalan — is The Twilight Zone, still the standard-bearer for these sorts of mind-bending moral tales. In that regard Old feels like one of the Twilight Zones from the series’ infamous fourth season, when CBS forced Rod Serling to expand the episodes from 30 to 60 minutes to fill a hole in the network’s schedule. At 30 minutes, The Twilight Zone produced haunting, poetic short stories. At 60 minutes, The Twilight Zone could often be a repetitive slog. And Old runs almost twice as long as that. Rather than consider what this claustrophobic premise would mean to these characters, Shyamalan resorts to a series of increasingly desperate shocks. Like Burgess Meredith in that famous Twilight Zone (and unlike the characters in Old) Shyamalan’s got all the time he needs. He just can’t figure out what to do with it.