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Old (2021): Shyamalan Film Review

Old somehow manages to represent the craziest, messiest and most imaginative work in M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography within one thrilling piece.

More than any other director working today, M. Night Shyamalan has had an incredibly controversial career spanning three decades. Better known for his universally loved supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense and his acclaimed deconstruction of the superhero genre Unbreakable, Shyamalan has seen both the best and worst Hollywood has to offer. Going from being praised by everyone as “the next Steven Spielberg” to being called a fraud and one of the worst directors of all time. Whether you are a fan of the guy as an artist or not, you can’t deny his passion for film is still very much there, and it shows in every single one of his films. Sure, movies like The Last Airbender and The Happening are unexplainable messes that make you question this filmmaker’s vision and storytelling capabilities, but for every bad film Shyamalan has made, he’s treated us with surprisingly smart thrillers that have stayed with us for years.

After having to gain back the trust of the audience and critics, Shyamalan made The Visit, an independent horror movie that ended up being one of the most pleasant surprises of 2015. He then went out to make Split, a film that attracted much attention due to James McAvoy’s (X-Men: First Class) Oscar-worthy performance, Shyamalan’s terrific script and the film itself being a secret continuation to Unbreakable. In 2019, with audience members accepting his return to mainstream media, the visionary director released yet another divisive film in Glass, the finale to his unofficial Unbreakable trilogy. But unlike some of his previous controversial work, people weren’t suddenly turned off by the director’s style and storytelling choices and kept an open mind towards his future projects, even if they didn’t like the last film he had worked on.

Old is his latest offering, and, with it, comes a whole new wave of suspense in what promises to give moviegoers the scares they need this summer. M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t waste any minute with Old, and throws us right into our characters’ journey to their holiday vacation destination. Once arriving at the hotel the family will be staying at, there is this sense of things not being right and you almost immediately start worrying for our protagonists. But the suspicious hotel is not the only thing to worry about: we learn that Guy (Gael García Bernal, Coco) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) planned this trip to give their children one last good memory as a family, since they are planning on getting a divorce after a tumor was found in Prisca’s body. From here, the film takes off as the family and other guests in the hotel are offered to be taken to this isolated part of the island where they could spend a couple of quiet hours relaxing without being disturbed. It doesn’t take long until things go south, though, as both the children and the parents start aging rapidly, reducing their entire lives into a single day. That synopsis alone feels like I’m giving away too many plot details, but there are so many more surprises that come along the way that make Old stand out, while the film suffers in other areas.

loud and clear reviews old m night shyamalan
(from left) Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie) and Trent (Alex Wolff) in Old, written for the screen and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. (© 2021 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. All Rights Reserved.)

It’s extremely difficult having to talk about an M. Night production when his stories are built around “the big plot twist” that changes your perspective of the entire story you just watched. But in a way, Old isn’t really concerned with that, because it makes the twist so painfully obvious within the first ten minutes of the movie. You know exactly who is behind this sinister plot, it’s not subtle at all, and the only remaining question is why? From that standpoint, the film’s twist isn’t anything special, but, in a sense, that might be a good thing, as this is the closest we’ve gotten to Shyamalan making a film focused on ideas rather than a twist. To say Old is thematically rich would be an understatement. Only M. Night Shyamalan would come up with a story surrounding our fears of growing old and not having enough time to tell our loved ones just how much they mean to us. In that front, Old exceeds at making you care for what these families are going through by manipulating the audience’s emotions and their fear of death.

Alex Wolff (Pig) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) continue to impress in their relatively young careers. They’re given the most to do in the movie, and they manage to portray the child-like confusion of being trapped in an adult’s body, going through puberty and seeing horrific things no kid should ever have to witness. Bernal and Krieps bring so much of the emotional core of the film as the parents of Wolff and McKenzie, especially towards the third act. Their dynamic with our supporting characters is great and they elevate scenes that otherwise would be unintentionally funny or hard to watch. Unfortunately, that’s as far as most of the performances go, because the rest of the cast are given little to nothing to do. Well, let me rephrase that: they’re given some of the most bizarre dialogue and line delivery I’ve seen in a film all year. It’s a shame, because you can tell with a more polished script these actors would probably deliver some really powerful stuff, but that’s just not the case in the finished product we got here. In addition, though its themes are strong, they’re not strong enough to hold together Shyamalan’s approach to this story.

A recurring problem with M. Night’s movies is that he often tries to do so much in just one project that his ideas tend to not mesh well enough. Old is a perfect example of that issue. For example, there’s an entire subplot that takes a good 10 to 15 minutes of the film, dedicated to a character who is pregnant and how the situation they find themselves in on the beach complicates the entire childbirth process. It’s a great way to build tension amongst our characters, and that idea alone could carry an entire film by itself, but besides a couple of good scenes filled with suspense, it ultimately goes nowhere. Then we have character decisions that are just confusing from an execution standpoint. Rufus Sewell plays Charles, a doctor who is slowly losing his mind as the beach starts taking a toll on him. This is nothing out of the ordinary: it wouldn’t be the first time a character went crazy in a survival horror. The difference with Old is, it portrays this descent into madness in a very goofy manner, so much so that you aren’t sure if it’s meant to be serious or funny. Same goes for Nikki Amuka-Bird (The Personal History of David Copperfield) and Ken Leung’s (Lost) characters and the parts they have to play.

Probably the most unfulfilling aspect of Old is the way it deals with its rich themes. Yes, the best part of the movie is also its biggest drawback. It’s not so much what Shyamalan is trying to say, it’s how he says it. Half of the time, the horror of not being able to do anything about how the beach is changing the characters physically and mentally is great, but other times it’s just all over the place. Important character moments between the children going through the transition of adulthood are so rushed because the story forces them to move to a less interesting subplot that doesn’t deserve the amount of time spent as much as the horror of parents seeing their kids’ life play out in front of their eyes while theirs is ending. Then there’s irrational decisions characters hold back from their loved ones, even though it only makes things more complicated than they need to be. 

The whole concept of growing old in a singular day feels like the perfect thriller for M. Night Shyamalan to direct. When the film finally decides to hit the brakes and focus on those quieter moments is when Old shines and outperforms most of the movies we’ve gotten to see in 2021, but there’s just not enough of that. Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography does a lot of the heavy lifting during scenes that otherwise would be dull and boring. Shyamalan’s masterful eye for creepy imagery and building atmosphere also come in to save Old in what other director’s hands would be a complete mess. You might not love this movie by the end credits, but there’s just so many ideas poured into it that you can’t help but respect it for attempting to go places other films wouldn’t go. When Old gets going, it grabs you by the hand and takes you through an unforgettable journey. But when it hits those low points, they’re very noticeable. In good old M. Night Shyamalan fashion, some audience members will hate his latest entry in his filmography while others will love it. Only time will tell how Old will age in the coming years, but for now it is an ambitious yet flawed psychological thriller you shouldn’t miss in theaters.

Get it on Apple TV

Old is now available to watch on digital and on demand.

Old: Trailer (Universal Pictures)
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