M. Night Shyamalan has never made anything as intense as his latest film, Old. For almost two hours, the filmmaker behind The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable grabs his audience with a vise and squeezes them in the guts. It’s a film relentless in its terror, fear, and anxiety, but simultaneously you can’t take your eyes off the screen because you simply have to know what’s going to happen next.
Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, Old stars Gael Garcia Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle) and Vicky Krieps (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) as Guy and Prisca Capa. The couple is going through some hard times but decides a vacation with their kids, Trent and Maddox, might smooth things out. The Capas end up at a seemingly perfect resort where the manager takes a liking to them and recommends they go to this very special beach. So they, along with a few other guests, go to this stunning, secluded area to spend a day relaxing in the sun. That’s the last time the word “relaxing” can be used for Old, though.
Like a roller coaster clicking up its first incline, Shyamalan — who wrote and directed Old — slowly begins to amp up the tension and reveal the conflict: on this beach, time doesn’t work like it normally does; it passes much faster and everyone begins to age exponentially. Six-year-old Trent looks 15 in a matter of hours. Same for Maddox and the other people on the beach. Everyone is scared and confused and everything devolves very, very quickly… like an avalanche of bad luck and terror.
At the core of Old are those mysteries: Why these people, why this place, and can they escape? That’s what keeps you watching as Shyamalan puts the characters through unspeakable hell. Almost any kind of negative scenario the premise can set up happens; medical conditions worsen exponentially, fear and confusion leads to anger and violence, lives and development skip crucial steps resulting in unthinkable heartbreak. And when one problem seems to be resolved, another pops up in its place, over and over and over. Thankfully, most of these scenarios, while incredibly tense, are relatively tame. But as the film goes on things can, and do, get super gross here and there. Never overly violent or gory. Just… gross.
Truly, I can’t emphasise enough how much stress Old made me feel. Very few films in recent memory have elicited such a physical, visceral reaction as this one, and it’s a testament to Shyamalan’s filmmaking. In addition to the basic plot and momentum of the story, he’s always keeping you on the edge of your seat, whether it’s with off-centre framing, extreme close-ups, or a shaking Steadicam running up and down the beach. All of it combines perfectly with the propulsive, drum-heavy score by composer Trevor Gureckis.
Also, while not immediately obvious at the beginning of the film, the makeup becomes increasingly important — the ageing continues and we begin to realise all of these people are moving quicker and quicker towards probable, inevitable, death. There are a few poignant moments along the way, especially as the film reaches the end, and they provide just enough balance to let you breathe until the next bad thing happens.
Shyamalan’s filmmaking prowess wouldn’t work quite as well if not for the performances of the actors. Bernal and Krieps are excellent as the film’s central characters, parents who do their best to keep everyone as calm as can be. Each is powerful and stoic on the surface but, right below that, increasingly scared and vulnerable. Alex Wolff (Hereditary) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) show up as teenage versions of Trent and Maddox, each filled with the appropriate confusion and fear you might imagine from someone who was a kid in the morning but an adult in the evening.
Smaller supporting roles by the likes of Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale), Ken Leung (Lost), and Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road) are all beautifully nuanced as well, though the film can occasionally forget about them for extended periods of time. There are a few other small hiccups along the way — the ending, for instance. While cohesive and satisfying, it feels a bit rushed.
In the end though, Old is the M. Night Shyamalan show, down to his trademark cameo. He’s the puppet master on this gut-wrenching ride and he drags us through hell and back. It’s not an easy trip to take — much like it isn’t for the characters — but the film never leaves you bored or with time to think. Actually, you almost wish there was a little more time to consider the massive ethical dilemmas and life lessons Shyamalan is grappling with here, but there isn’t. He’s forced to sacrifice reflection for fear. Old is a knockout by punch to the gut and one of Shyamalan’s best films to date.
Old — which also stars Alexa Swinton, Embeth Davidtz, Nolan River, Luca Faustino Rodriguez, and Emun Elliott — is now showing in cinemas.