Old review: M Night Shyamalan's latest is an ambitious misfire

Photo credit: Phobymo/Universal Pictures
Photo credit: Phobymo/Universal Pictures

M. Night Shyamalan has always been a filmmaker who's unafraid to take risks. Since his directorial debut in 1992, he's carved out a career making movies that are guaranteed to prompt charged discussion – high-concept, occasionally twisty thrillers that often juggle different tones in a way many wouldn't dare to.

Some of those risks have paid off in big ways: think Unbreakable, The Village, Signs and The Sixth Sense. Other times not so much – and unfortunately, his latest, Old, has more in common with his more maligned outings The Lady in the Water and The Happening than it does his masterpieces.

Loosely based on Frederik Peeters and Pierre Oscar Lévy's graphic novel Sandcastle, it opens on risk analyst Guy (Gael García Bernal) and museum curator Prisca (Vicky Krieps). They're a married couple on the cusp of separating who vow to give their unsuspecting kids, 6-year-old Trent and preteen Maddox, one last holiday before officially calling it quits.

Putting their problems aside, the foursome travel to an idyllic resort in the tropics. Just a little while into their stay, they're approached by grinning hotel manager Nils and sign up to take an exclusive trip to one of the island's most secluded beaches.

Photo credit: Phobymo/Universal Pictures
Photo credit: Phobymo/Universal Pictures

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On the ferrying minibus, Guy, Prisca and co are joined by Charles (Rufus Sewell), a wealthy British doctor, his glam wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their daughter Kara, Charles' mother Agnes and her ill-fated Yorkshire terrier. Both families are blissfully unaware of the terrors that await them.

Shortly after they arrive at the cove, Shyamalan – who also wrote Old – injects a sense of dread and unease, as the children point out peculiar things about the peaceful spot, like there being tons of rusty cutlery buried by the base of the imposing cliff border, and there being no fish in the water.

Trent then stumbles across the body of a woman, and tensions rise as a few members of the ragtag group assume that she was murdered by Kevin (Aaron Pierre, The Underground Railroad), the young man who was already sitting silently in the sand when they got there.

Things get even more complicated, though, when another couple, Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), rock up and Trent, Maddox and Kara all begin to grow at a rapid rate.

Photo credit: Phobymo/Universal Pictures
Photo credit: Phobymo/Universal Pictures

As Agnes' health deteriorates, the other adults deduce (ludicrously quickly) that time must move differently on this beach, and that most of them won't last longer than a day. But when each of the holidaymakers tries to leave via the cavern they passed through on the way in, they black out and end up inexplicably plonked back out on to the seafront. (Hilarious, even if not intended to be).

What follows is an unrelenting hour or so full of gnarly body horror, makeshift surgeries, pregnancies, births, veiled proposals, accidental deaths and intentional stabbings. Some of this is present in the source material, but on screen, as the situation these characters find themselves in becomes more and more desperate, it's just too much.

Each scene, nastier and more manic than its last, has enough tongue-in-cheek glee to entertain seasoned Shyamalan scholars. However, Old's breakneck pacing once things start going south leaves little room to delve into character and personal relationships, or feature enough quieter flashes that would have helped to create sympathy for these people we've not long met.

While it does check out narratively in this context – you'd probably be hard pressed to find someone who's keen for a deep-and-meaningful chat when 10 minutes could cost them several months of their life – it gives the film almost like a silly, fever dream-esque quality, which won't be for everyone.

It also renders the inevitable losses much less impactful than perhaps they should have been. By the time the saccharine final act rolls around – it gets a little existential and sweeps marital issues under the rug – the conclusion feels unearned at best and jarring at worst.

Photo credit: Universal Pictures
Photo credit: Universal Pictures

Given its escalating intensity, every adult actor must have really been put through the wringer with Old, and can be commended for giving it their all. One great thing about the movie's premise is that it forces a constant shift in focus.

Towards the beginning of the movie, Guy, Prisca and Charles are the ones trying to work out what's going on and how they're going to survive. But as one starts to lose their sight, another their hearing and the third succumbs to an accelerated medical condition, the youngsters are forced to step up to the plate, allowing every performer time in the spotlight.

That said, only a couple of them make it worth their while. Hereditary's Alex Wolff (as a teenage Trent, responsibility having been thrust upon him when mere hours ago, he was just a small child) and Sewell – whose Charles gets one of the juicier, albeit still under-baked, subplots – undoubtedly fare best out of the entire ensemble.

But it's difficult to know whether every other performance is stifled by a script that has them deliver awkward, comically expository lines at their fellow actors instead of capturing conversations that seem even remotely real, or whether they were just so aware that pretty much every line was setting up another 'oh no' moment that they just couldn't sell it.

Photo credit: Universal Pictures
Photo credit: Universal Pictures

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An area that Old really impresses in, however, even more so when you take into consideration how over the top the rest of it is, is the hair and makeup effects used to signify the characters' aging.

When the little'uns grow up, different actors expectedly step into the roles, but the work done on the likes of Bernal and Krieps is quite remarkable, really, as each cut brings with it more wrinkles and grey hairs with refreshing subtlety. The pair's physicality as Guy and Prisca works to emphasise the achievements, too, and they're at their best when saying nothing at all.

For its many faults, though, there's something undeniably fascinating about Old, and it all comes back to Shyamalan's willingness to swing so hard he might miss entirely every time he steps behind a camera.

That's something that there is far too little of in franchise-loving Hollywood these days, whatever Old's flaws. He knows that the truly worst thing a movie can be is boring and, well, at least his are never that.

Old is out in cinemas on July 23.

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