Old, review: A provocative horror that brings out the best and worst in M Night Shyamalan

‘Sixth Sense’ maestro seems more concerned with avoiding any potential plot holes than creating wonder

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 22 July 2021 17:16
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Trailer released for Old

Dir: M Night Shyamalan. Starring: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abbey Lee. 15, 108 mins.

M Night Shyamalan still can’t quite shake his reputation as the king of plot twists. It doesn’t matter what he’s done in the decades since Haley Joel Osment saw dead people. The label has stuck. And it’s not quite a fair one. Shyamalan shouldn’t be defined by his twists, but by his constant unpredictability. It’s a subtle but important difference. What makes his horror films so effective – when they’re at their best, at least – is that he allows his stories to exist in a sense of perpetual tension. At any moment, the path might change. They could slip wildly into a different genre. New nightmares could emerge from any corner. What determines whether a Shyamalan film is good or bad is how he deals with that build-up of terror. Does he let it linger menacingly in the air? Or try to soothe it out of his audience’s minds with a tidy ending? Old, in that sense, brings out both the best and worst in him.

In its opening scene, we’re introduced to what should be a blissful scenario: a wealthy, nuclear family on a tropical vacation. The parents, Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), gaze adoringly as their young children zoom around their hotel room. But the camera sits waiting on the outside, watching them through the windows, pacing up and down like a jaguar readying for the kill. What hidden torment will soon be revealed to us? Old feels like a repeat of Shyamalan’s 2004 film The Village – it’s provocative and inventive right until the point the director retreats into narrative neatness and conventional emotions.

A manager suggests the family spend the day at a private beach – one of those little-known hotspots that all holidaymakers crave. They’re soon joined by a second family – a doctor (Rufus Sewell), his mother (Kathleen Chalfant) and his modelesque wife (Abbey Lee), plus his young child. A little later, another couple, played by Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird, arrive. A dead body, floating facedown in the water, is the real starting point for Old’s reign of terror. There’s a man, too, crouched in the shadows, who nervously reveals himself to be a popular rapper called Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) – it’s unclear whether the name is intended as a joke or just a sign of cultural disconnect.

But there’s a strangeness that starts to consume these people the very second they step foot on the beach. They can’t quite put their finger on it. But their bodies simply don’t quite feel like their bodies any more. The truth is that their cells have started to age rapidly – the reason why is part of the great mystery Shyamalan knows his audience will be eager to solve. Although the film is actually an adaptation of the Swiss graphic novel Sandcastle, by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, the director has provided his own resolution to the story.

All the implicit themes at play here – not only of our general fears of ageing, but of the doomed inevitability that our medical histories create – run strongly throughout Old. There’s a primal potency to them. But the film, just like The Village, suffers from Shyamalan’s desire to forever chase a sense of order within the universe. Sometimes this can actually be quite refreshing – Old is the rare horror where the characters are all hypercompetent – but Shyamalan’s persistent refusal to leave behind any wonder, or instability, ultimately strips Old of its staying power. He seems more concerned with avoiding any potential plot hole that might send Reddit users into a rage than he does in creating something emotionally satisfying. It’s hard to talk about his films as something more than their endings when it’s the endings that always seem to decide their fate.

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