Review of M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Old’
The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000) created a movie bond with filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan that will always exist. In other words, I continue to go into each of his projects with hopeful expectations of another classic. Of course, some have been pretty good (Split, 2016), while others are barely watchable (The Last Airbender, 2010). His latest, Old, lands somewhere in the middle, but does feature a stunning beach setting (Dominican Republic) – one whose tropical beauty hides a sinister reality.
The film’s synopsis is captured in the trailer: tourists experience a mystifying and terrifying phenomenon while on a day trip to a gorgeous secluded beach. The director adapted the film from the 2010 graphic novel Sandcastle, written by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters. Shyamalan specializes in one thing: big and creative ideas. He is a risk-taking filmmaker, but one not always focused on execution, coherence, or details. Especially awkward here is the dialogue. None of these characters talk like real people. Lending to the awkwardness is the attention given to each character’s name and occupation except for the kids, where age is the significant data.
Due to the nature of the story (and the effects of the beach), the cast is significantly larger than the number of characters. We ride along with one family as they first approach the luxury resort. Insurance actuary Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife, museum curator Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are vacationing with their 11-year old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6-year old son Trent (Nolan River). The couple clearly has a strained relationship and appears headed for a break-up.
Encouraged by the resort manager to spend the day at a secret remote beach, they are joined by Charles (Rufus Sewell), a surgeon, his calcium-deficient trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their young daughter Kara, and the doctor’s elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Another couple is there as well, nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and his wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a psychologist. Already at the beach when they arrive is rap star Mid-sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), replete with a bloody nose and the corpse of the woman who accompanied him.
It’s best not to go into specifics about the progression of things for these folks on the beach, but it can be noted that they frantically try to find a way back to the resort. When all attempts prove unsuccessful, that ridiculous dialogue fills in many of the gaps for us, though you should know the science doesn’t hold up. Think of it as fantasy instead. As their day at the beach moves forward, other actors take over: Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie are teenage Trent and Maddox, Eliza Scanlen is Kara, and later, Emun Elliott and Embeth Davidtz become Trent and Maddox. It becomes frustrating for viewers as the professions are emphasized: Guy spouts statistics at every turn, Prisca discloses she’s not a pathologist, and Patricia attempts to get everyone to bring their feelings to the group. Ugh.
Despite the many missteps and the overall mess of characterizations, Shyamalan (who also appears as the driver who drops them at the beach) does serve up a creative idea – one that will likely get viewers questioning their own mortality. Mental illness is addressed in a crude manner with Rufus Sewell (a fine actor) bearing the brunt of a poor script, while physical afflictions and the effects of age come off a bit better. The strange-looking woman serving up custom cocktails at the resort is Francesca Eastwood (Clint’s daughter), and Shyamalan’s patented plot twist ending does make sense and even has a contemporary feel to it.