During the viewing experience of watching Old, time seems to work differently both onscreen and while sitting in the theater. The movie itself, you see, follows a group of unfortunate vacationers who get stuck on a private beach, where they fall victim to an alarming, irreversible, unexplainable process of accelerated aging. Okay, maybe unexplainable isn’t the right word, seeing that this is a thriller written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, after all; which means there’s always some explanation or two or a hundred. And they keep coming until the very end. And when that time comes, you’ll likely find yourself both exasperated and disappointed by what you’ve seen: a gleaming piece of high-concept summer trashiness that really does play strange games with your perceptions. It’s a movie that grabs and pushes away your attention throughout its entire runtime, ranging from some of its strong set pieces to a tedious closing stretch. Leaving you not always agreeably puzzled. And that’s no small accomplishment. Some Shyamalan films can take years to start looking better with age (i.e. The Village, which keeps getting better), but Old almost pulls if off in record time.
The clock gets ticking from the get-go, when we see Prisca (Vickey Krieps) and Guy (Gael García Bernal), an attractive, unhappily married couple who have arrived at a tropical island resort in the opening scenes. They’re calling it quits and taking one last family vacation together with their kids, Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and Trent (Nolan River), who are eleven and six, for now. Everyone’s too distracted to notice the faint creepiness of the resort, one of those all-inclusive getaways with stunning ocean views, personalized cocktails on arrival and a van (driven by Shyamalan himself, in one of his more prominent on-screen roles) that will chauffeur specially hand-selected guests to a secret cove on another side of the island. It’s here that Guy, Prisca and the kids find themselves one afternoon, along with several other guests. While they have names, it may be best to identify each of them by the occupation and/or single personality trait that Shyamalan has saddled them with: There’s a rude, racist doctor (Rufus Sewell), his beauty-obsessed wife (Abbey Lee), their cute daughter (Kylie Begley) and her sweet grandmother (Kathleen Chalfant). There’s a quiet rapper (Aaron Pierre), a helpful nurse (Ken Leung) and his psychiatrist wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird). And then there’s the corpse that washes up that afternoon, the first sign that something on this beach is very, very wrong.
More signs follow. A small tumor in someone inflates to the size of a grapefruit within seconds. Wrinkles appear on the older travelers’ faces, cuts and wounds heal with alarming speed, and Maddox and Trent suddenly get older (now played by Thomasin McKenzie and Luca Faustino Rodriguez). As you’d expect and perhaps even want from a slasher movie where Time itself is wielding the knife, the body counts escalates fast. They’ll all be dead within days or even hours, they realize, and whenever they try to leave — to exit through the surrounding caves and swim past the heavy currents — the beach has an unnerving way to pulling them back. And Old, adapted from Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters’ graphic novel Sandcastle, is just getting started. To find the proper way to describe the noisy, increasingly unhinged passages that follow can be tough: Gilligan’s Island if directed by Luis Buñuel or Ed Wood’s L’Avventura, seem fitting. But that sort of random, spitballing nature seems to be harboring Shyamalan. Burrowing into the outlandish implication of his premise, he pulls off one or two grisly sequences, at least one of which suggests that even premature aging has its undeniably uses. He steeps his characters in a familiar fog of panic and paranoia, in which they struggle to believe, let alone explain, the extraordinary phenomena transpiring before their eyes.
In regards to generating real suspense or terror from that, Shyamalan is a bit mixed. His camera here spins and lurks and looms, enhancing the seasick disorientation. Teaming up for the third time with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, the two find moments of menace and mystery and other moments of grand goofiness. They spread the actors throughout various formations on the open beach terrain. (The fast-mutating ensemble also includes Embeth Davidtz, Emun Elliott, Alex Wolff, Eliza Scanlen and Mikaya Fisher.) The dialogue, on the other hand, gets to extraordinarily clumsy places, delivering forehead-smacking exposition in a script that tends to tell twice as much as it shows.
Yet with all that, Old still, somehow, inspires at least a spasm of retroactive goodwill. And maybe that’s because it’s nice to see Shyamalan doing a deranged one-off, taking the movie equivalent of an invigorating stroll in the sun. Maybe because the story concludes not with anything shocking per se, but a final passage that’s far too tidy; lacking the more haunting fatalism of its source material. Or maybe it’s just that Old builds to an obvious but appreciably stirring note. It acknowledges the reality of just how quickly time passes and how cruelly loves fade away. Maybe it’s true that life is too short for bad movies. Or maybe it’s too short not to take what pleasure in them you can. As bewildering and even pleasurably bonkers as Old gets to be, it’s still genuinely difficult to grasp its self-awareness; for the film to find an ability to tap into the mortal terror of its premise.
Old is playing in Theaters nationwide, as of July 23