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Old Review: M. Night Shyamalan's Mystery Is Tedious, But Intense

Adapted from Sandcastle, the graphic novel by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest mystery-thriller, Old, is different from the films he’s written and directed in the past. The film is less focused on the traditional horror elements, which is refreshing, even as it shifts towards a message that is underdeveloped when considering the big twist. Old has its moments of intrigue, of bodily horror, and themes surrounding the passage of time, but it’s too often bogged down by its tedious mystery.   

Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are planning to separate and bring their kids, Trent (Nolan River) and Maddox (Alexa Swinton), to the Anamika Resort for a last family vacation before everything in their life changes. When they and a few others — Jarin (Ken Leung), Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Charles (Rufus Sewell), and Chrystal (Abbey Lee) — are selected to visit a secluded beach for the day by the resort manager (Gustaf Hammersten), they quickly discover that time works differently there. Trapped with no hope of escape, the characters must figure out why they’ve been chosen and the reason they’re aging so rapidly.

Related: Old Trailer Reveals M. Night Shyamalan's Supernatural Thriller

Shyamalan builds tension and suspense with close-ups of the body — faces, knees, shoulders, eyes — when the characters are working through heightened emotions and changes to their situations. The camera pans away at every physical transformation, spanning the length of the beach before settling back on its subjects. This is exciting in the sense that the outcome of the movement is a surprise to the audience, as well as another predicament for the characters. It’s also a bold choice to film all the unfolding action during the day; as the sun goes down, the looming darkness is used to reflect on the precious time lost, the life choices made, and the affection that still lingers between Prisca and Guy’s family despite everything. There’s a deep sense of wasted time on anger and enjoying the time one has, even if Old doesn’t always pull it off because it waits too long to get to that point with the characters. 

The dialogue is occasionally comical, especially when the characters are astonished by things they shouldn’t be — Prisca asks, in all seriousness, “Can you believe I found this place on the internet?” With so much of people’s time now spent online, where else would she have found the resort? However, the actors deliver their lines with such conviction, elevating the story and relationship dynamics that would have otherwise fallen flat. Old certainly nails the eerie, intense feelings that come with being trapped, of watching one’s life unfolding so quickly that it’s hard to think past the missed opportunities. As the characters grow older every half hour, the desperation and paranoia grows along with them, sometimes to dizzyingly intense degrees. That is where the thrills truly lie — how people can so quickly turn on each other because of things outside their control. The film’s sweet spot is right in the middle of its runtime, after the setup has been established, but before the reveal of what’s actually going on. This is where Shyamalan finds the balance between the story and its characters as he lingers on them and what this all means for their lives and the effects of their choices.

That said, the premise of the film is often more interesting than its execution. Aging is something society fears and avoids, with elderly abuse, age discrimination in the workforce, and the general negativity surrounding the loss of youth ever-present; the latter is on display with Chrystal, who values her youthful looks above all else. Conversely, for Trent and Maddox, what is it like to grow up too fast? When the mind of a six-year-old is suddenly a teenager with raging hormones, the impact on the body can be dangerous. To that end, Shyamalan is at least focused on the characters’ bodies, not in a creepy way, but in a fascinating, detailed close-up of its changes. Despite some of the good, Old doesn’t engage fully with the topics it sets up, including the aspect of the story introduced by the twist at the end, one that adds several more layers to the previous events. Typical of Shyamalan, the twist reframes the entirety of the film’s plot, but it’s one that will give pause regarding the exploitation of certain issues and how they’re perceived.

Sometimes, Old is bizarrely clinical despite its tension-building. When even the chills and thrills don’t work the way they should later on in the film, it leaves the audience waiting impatiently to get to the end for answers. There isn’t much time spent exploring the characters, with much of the quiet, reflective moments being relegated to the end. It doesn’t quite land an emotional punch because the plot is far more dedicated to maintaining the mystery, one that drags on unnecessarily and doesn’t provide much insight since it comes too late. The film’s primary message is tacked on at the end, with Shyamalan only dipping into the shallow end of the repercussions. So while Old is certainly a different kind of thriller, with plenty of elements that work to create a sense of tranquility and desperation in equal measure, it grows wearisome as it evades its deeper themes for the thrill of that final discovery.

Next: How Old Is Different From M. Night Shyamalan's Other Movies

Old is releasing in theaters on the evening of Thursday, July 22. The film is 108 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for strong violence, disturbing images, suggestive content, partial nudity and brief strong language.

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