M. Night Shyamalan can be accused of many things: that his ego sometimes ruins an otherwise great story, that he’s a bit too precious about his writing, that some of his stories work in service of the twist and not the other way around… that he doesn’t let actors fully inhabit his characters. That his style may be a tad overbearing. But! Look over this paragraph and you’ll find the most important thing. It’s his style. His characters. His stories. His ego. One thing nobody could ever disagree with is that his movies are decidedly, unabashedly, unapologetically his.
Old is no exception in this regard even though – unlike the vast majority of the work Shyamalan has ever tackled – it isn’t his original story. It is an adaptation of a graphic novel Sandcastle by a French documentarian Pierre Oscar Lévy which was allegedly recommended to him by his own daughter. “Here, I think you’d like it” is what she must have said to her dad, knowing full well what makes him tick. And although Shyamalan ended up making some crucial changes to the source material in the course of adapting it into the film, it is simply undeniable that the crux of the story must have spoken to him on a deeply personal level.
To be completely honest, it is downright impossible to engage in any way with this film without potentially ruining some crucial elements of its story, therefore I strongly advise anyone who reads this to go to the cinema, sit through the film and then come back, because as much as I never focus on the intricacies of the plot in any movie I write about (unless it is the sole purpose of the article, naturally), it is best to walk into any Shyamalan picture completely blind. First of all, it is always a bit more entertaining to try to figure out the central intrigue – because if there wasn’t one, I don’t think Shyamalan would be able to sleep at night – and the subsequent post-screening process of mentally tracing back the clues and thematic nods peppered throughout the narrative remains pristine, unaffected by any prior opinion.
In any case, Old sees a couple (played by Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps) at a crossroads in their relationship with their kids trapped in the crossfire of a clearly decomposing marriage. They are about to embark on what is revealed as one last great memory to be made as a family before they both go their separate ways. However, when the manager of the resort where they’re staying on their last ever vacation as a family sends them on a day trip to an allegedly beautiful and completely secluded private beach, everything changes. Because the beach is not just a beach but an anomalous micro-universe where the laws of physics are ever so slightly different. The family, together with a bunch of other vacationers, end up stranded in a place where time flows much faster than in the outside world and they would grow old and die in the course of one single day.
Naturally, there’s a twist to this story. In fact, there’s probably more than one. But contrary to what the vast majority of movie goers would like to think, the mystery, the plot and the Twilight Zone-esque atmosphere are merely a part of what Old is all about. I would go out on a limb and venture a guess that this film is one of the most personal works Shyamalan has ever put to screen, even in full awareness of the fact it is not an original screenplay of his. In fact, the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that his approach to filmmaking has undergone a similar transformation to that of Wes Anderson’s, who has also completely embraced the idiosyncrasies that made his movies stand out and – starting with The Grand Budapest Hotel – went full tilt, as if with a tacit expectation to sieve out the nay-sayers and galvanize his apologists.
Therefore, I fully understand that Old has divided audiences almost exactly in twine. It is nigh on impossible to emerge from this screening indifferent. It’s a movie you hate or a movie you love (or at least like a lot); no fence-sitting allowed. That’s because Shyamalan has fully embraced his own tics and flourishes and folded them into the very fabric of how this story is told. Perhaps one might ascribe it to the authorial ego fully taking control of the man’s work, but I beg to differ. I think Old is an incredibly personal and important story for this filmmaker. Underneath the artifice of its style and the cogs of the plot (which also nestles its own social commentary revealed at the very end) lies a supple discussion on the fragility of the human condition.
You can laugh at the stilted quirkiness of the dialogue, oddly written line deliveries, the many instances of the filmmaker breaking the age-old “show, don’t tell” rule of storytelling (precisely to evoke Hitchcockian suspense much in the same way he has always done, only more so!) and maybe even roll your eyes at the sight of Shyamalan inserting himself into the film in a role that goes well beyond the parameters of a cameo, but you can’t hide from the simple fact that Old is a film with a heart. If you forget about the notion of following the bread crumbs and trying to stay abreast of all the plot nuances the filmmaker may have hidden between the lines (which he has, obviously), you will find the film to be soulful, reflective and dare I say emotionally charged. It is as though Shyamalan needed to process his own reflections on mortality and maybe some bottled-up frustrations or regrets and it all spilled onto the pages of what became the script for Old.
Granted, where the film goes in its very ending opens a whole new can of worms and perhaps undercuts its own thematic core, at least in the moment, by temporarily shifting the weight to its hind leg and delivering a surprise jab at the pharmaceutical industry; however, the central story is still there for you to process on your way back home from the cinema. And I don’t think Shyamalan wants you to go on Facebook and rant about how reckless he thinks Big Pharma is in its pursuit of medical breakthroughs, how ends justify the means and yaddi-yaddi-yaddah…
What I think the filmmaker wants you to take away from this cinematic experiment is a pause for reflection. He wants us to take a few deep breaths and realize how fleeting life is. He wants us to realize – probably just as he must have realized himself – that it’s not exactly an exaggeration to blink and see our kids get older. It seems like yesterday when I held my new born daughter in my arms and promised her I’d take care of her. Now she’s so big that carrying her for more than a few seconds is a serious health risk for Yours Truly. Blink again and she’ll be a young woman. Blink again and she’ll be an adult. And I’ll be fully ensconced in organizing my Lebensabend. That’s what I think Old is – a reminder not to sweat the small stuff and maybe not to be overwhelmed with what we think are really big problems. None of them matter from the perspective of the absolute – time itself.
Therefore, at the risk of coming across as a mad man, I can succinctly summarize Old as a merger of Shyamalan’s own hyper-stylized (and completely misunderstood) language he last used when he made The Happening with sweeping aspirations of A Ghost Story filtered into a cocktail of absurdist cinema borrowed from Luis Buñuel himself. It’s dizzying, brash, loaded and formally overwhelming, but it’s equally soulful and delicate in the way it probes the subject matter hidden beneath the story. Old is M. Night Shyamalan at his most self-aware, perhaps because in making his movie he realized that life is too short to cower away from your own identity.