Old isn’t subtle — but a movie about a magic beach that makes you age extra fast doesn’t really have to be.
In the latest supernatural thriller from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, visitors to a serene island resort become imprisoned by a mysterious force. Eleven hotel guests, headed to a picturesque nature reserve for a day oceanside, find themselves unable to leave a remote cove after a woman’s body washes up onshore. Though each of them attempts to go back the way they came, painful headaches keep them from getting far. Soon after, they realize everyone on the beach (a group that includes three children) is suddenly aging at rapid speed.
Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and artist Frederik Peeters, Old’s premise sounds like a Twilight Zone setup, and for the first 45 minutes or so, it plays like one. Unhappy couple Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), along with their children Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and Trent (Nolan River), act as the story’s emotional center as we’re introduced to a cast of characters resembling one spectacularly screwed-up Gilligan’s Island.
Credit: universal pictures
The potential for a hollow kill fest becomes glaringly apparent as we get to know the rules of the beach through its myriad victims. Of course, watching what happens to these poor people forced to live on fast-forward is what we’re all here for — but keeping audiences reasonably invested in any horror movie requires emotional finesse that has eluded Shyamalan in the past.
Making a premise this outrageous into something believable requires more of the director’s Signs-era stylings and less of his Lady in the Water side. Even as the film’s second act began to heighten, which end of the artist we’d wind up getting felt like anyone’s guess.
But as luck would have it, Old proves to be far more than its trippy schtick. Light on the jump scares but heavy on more complex fear, this particularly thorny nightmare plays with elements your average slasher or survival horror movie can’t. Portraying death’s inevitability as an immediate threat — by the group’s estimate, they have roughly 24 hours before they die of natural causes — Old builds its excruciating tension by accelerating life’s most inescapable horrors.
Yes, there’s sickness and pain experienced in record time. But there’s also loss of innocence, loss of beauty, loss of love, even loss of faculties. The result is a deeply uncomfortable experiment in cinematic suffering that allows for some gut-wrenching scenes sure to stick with you long after Old’s surprisingly straightforward final act. An existential haunted house that finds new ways to terrify throughout its 1 hour and 48-minute runtime, the setting makes for a consistently entertaining and satisfyingly unnerving watch.
While the stark excellence of Sixth Sense’s “I see dead people” evades Shyamalan’s exposition here, Old manages to make even its clumsiest components work.
Unintentionally awkward dialogue bounces off intentionally disorienting visuals, beautifully crafted by Us and It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis. Self-aware humor — like having a therapist (Nikki Amuka-Bird) hysterically screaming “Maybe we should talk about what just happened!” and actually naming a rapper character “Mid-Sized Sedan” (Aaron Pierre) — smoothes out Old’s more under-developed characters and storylines.
Even as some of its child actors struggle to keep up with the material, Old’s committed ensemble consistently delivers the frantic emotion the movie’s plot demands. Chilling performances by Hereditary’s Alex Wolff, who plays an older version of Trent, and Neon Demon’s Abbey Lee Kershaw, who plays a vapid young mother named Chrystal, cement the pair’s credentials as horror heavyweights. An especially likable turn by Lost veteran Ken Leung, who plays ER nurse Jarin, serves as a kind of Easter egg for fans of the desert island subgenre. And Rufus Sewell shines in a role better left unspoiled.
Credit: universal pictures
Sure, some of Old‘s rougher edges will rub certain viewers the wrong way. But for longtime fans of Shyamalan’s work, the film marks an exciting development for the iconic director. Fearless and fun, Old doesn’t bother to waste time apologizing for the audacity of its bonkers premise. Instead, it lets Shyamalan create with reckless abandon, giving audiences something altogether new.