Since filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s rise to prominence with THE SIXTH SENSE in 1992, I’ve been waiting for another of his films to reach that thriller’s incredible heights. I’m still waiting. Granted, the supernatural classic is a lot to live up to, but Shyamalan has come close with the likes of SPLIT. Unfortunately, OLD is among his lesser works, showcasing far too many of his bad habits that have plagued everything from THE VILLAGE to GLASS.
Shyamalan is superb at creating vivid concepts with great hooks that will entice studio execs and audiences alike. However, he has a problem once he gets into his stories, often failing to keep his writing focused, cogent or consistent. Such faults have plagued his work for nearly three decades now, and those shortcomings are clearly illuminated by the bright sun in his latest suspense thriller OLD.
Not surprisingly, his story starts with a compelling premise. A select group of vacationers is given access to a private beach near the hoity-toity resort where they’re all staying. Shyamalan introduces the group and they’re a stressed-out lot, in need of some R & R, but it is not to come. Instead, once they arrive on the sandy sanctuary, their holiday becomes fraught with death and despair. Some in the entourage expire, and a dead body even washes up onshore. What kind of beach is this?
Those trying to solve the mystery include an unhappily married couple (Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps) with a pre-teen girl and boy; an arrogant surgeon (Rufus Sewell) with his trophy wife, six-year-old daughter, mother, and dog in tow; and an epileptic woman and her nurse hubby (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung). Joining the brood is a sullen rap star (Aaron Pierre) who was already at the beach when they arrived. Is he responsible for the death of the waterlogged girl? And why is his nose bleeding?
For the first 30 minutes, the film seemed on its way to becoming a beach-bound AND THEN THERE NONE. Who are these people, what are they so tense, and why does death seem to be following them so closely? But as the film introduces its main hook – that the beach is a supernatural one that ages people rapidly – the story starts to crumble into unrecognizable human behavior and crass storytelling manipulation.
The pre-teens show up from exploring the island having aged five years easily and most of the adults act with almost no panic. Wouldn’t their parents feel sheer terror seeing such a metamorphosis in their kids? Soon, other physical improbabilities occur too, everything from self-healing wounds to the rapid onset of osteoporosis, but everyone still stands around jawing about it as if it’s merely severe sunburn.
Shyamalan stops writing characters and begins just moving pawns around his metaphysical chessboard. Recognizable human behavior is tossed out the window, bodies are tossed about like rag dolls by some force field in the caverns, and the whole time the doctor obsesses over the name of the movie Jack Nicholson starred in with Marlon Brando. (It was called THE MISSOURI BREAKS, and you’ll be wondering when the miseries here will break.)
Granted, some of the film is scary, but most of it plays like an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that spent too much time in the sun. The talented cast, including Thomasin McKenzie and Eliza Scanlen, is given very little substance to play, and Shyamalan makes bizarre choices in what he shows the audience and what he doesn’t. The filmmaker holds off showing dead bodies or the effects of the aging at times but then digs right into a split open stomach.
Much of the film feels disjointed too as if there were some heavy cuts being made to the dialogue and continuity in the edit suite. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Shyamalan film without some big twists at the end, but they lessen the story here, making it appear small and wrapped up all too neatly.
Maybe it would’ve been more frightening if the Shyamalan didn’t explain everything; leave the audience something to think about and chew over after the screening. He needs a screenwriting partner, someone to help keep his work focused, cogent and consistent. Sloppy storytelling has been the main problem with Shyamalan’s work for 30 years now and it’s getting old.