M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller is stuffed with brilliant ideas. It’s also one of the most ridiculous films of 2021. Set on an exotic beach that accelerates the ageing process, it involves a tsunami of bad lines. If you enjoy scoffing at event movies (and this is definitely an event; the creator of The Sixth Sense still knows how to scare up an audience, as shown by low-budget hits The Visit and Split), you’ll have a high old time.
The premise: two families at an exclusive resort are offered the chance to sample an especially remote stretch of coast. Guy and Prisca (Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps) are accompanied by their two kids, Maddox and Trent. A tetchy, paranoid and racist Brit, Charles, and his trophy wife Chrystal (Rufus Sewell and Abbey Lee) are with their six year-old Kara and Charles’ mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant; wasted. Ironically, in a movie called Old, the elderly barely figure).
Next to arrive are thirty-something couple Patricia and Jarin (Nikki Amuka-Bird and Ken Leung). All the adults decide the beach is too good to be true. It is. The body of a naked girl washes into view. Prisca’s pre-cancerous growth becomes a problem (“this tumour is going to kill her!”) and Chrystal’s looks start to fade (“Don’t look at me!” she screams).
What’s extraordinary is how the daft dialogue infects the talented cast. Bernal, Krieps, Sewell; we know these people can act. But, for whole chunks of the movie, they frown and wave their arms around like am-dram rubes.
Every now and again, though, they get a chance to shine. And you realise that, yes, honestly, this could have been a masterpiece.
The performances by the little kids are eerily sweet (Nolan River has a great future ahead of him). The older actors who take over the parts are also superb, with Alex Wolff and Eliza Scanlen especially memorable as insecure teens Kara and Trent. The latter’s tentative flirting is moving; ditto their goofy excitement when they learn they’re going to be parents and Trent’s absolute devastation when things go wrong. Kara complains that they’ve missed out on the chance to do so many normal things. Think of all the pandemic-scarred teenagers who’ll identify with that.
Shyamalan’s exploration of Charles’s early-on-set dementia is also wily. Sewell had a crucial part in The Father and, like Florian Zeller’s genre-defying drama, Old offers multiple views on this confounding form of mental illness. Shyamalan is evolving. In The Visit (2015), the scary old grand-parents, with their nappies, puckered flesh and homicidal rages, turned out to be “mad” strangers. Here, horrific confusion is integral to so-called normal family life.
But the fact remains that Old is never scary and that tension is consistently frittered away, with illogical and/or generic set pieces. It’s incredibly frustrating.
The source text (a graphic novel by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters) ended quietly. Shyamalan (who boasted a month ago that he was still working on the final scenes) has come up with his own twist. It’s not awful. But nor does it provide a satisfying wallop.
There are plenty of in-jokes. Charles can’t remember the name of a film starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson (The Missouri Breaks). Patricia makes a gag about The Exorcist (one of the Shyamalan’s favourite films). And the director himself has an extended cameo (Hitchcock knew to keep things short and sweet; Shyamalan is no Hitchcock).
Still, how can you not be impressed by a man who drops in a visual reference to a biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir? Prisca, who feels “unseen” in her relationship with Guy, asks him “What book am I reading?” and, when he admits he doesn’t know, she sighs. When you first watch the film, you’re unlikely to notice Carole Seymour-Jones’ name on the tome Prisca has in her hands. We get a good long look at the title but, like Guy, we’re too busy looking in the wrong direction to see what’s there.
Shyamalan’s film wants us to live in the moment. Too many of the moments in this movie are moronic. Crazy but true, though, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
In cinemas. 108mins, 15