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Old Review: Too Strange To Miss

With the release of "Old," the newest effort for writer/director/brand M. Night Shyamalan, a particularly tired bit of discourse is going to be back on the rise.

Once revered as the second coming of his two biggest influences — Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg — Shyamalan has seen his once-powerful fandom divert into two dueling factions. Currently winning this civil war are those who have been burned so harshly by everything Shyamalan made after "Signs" that they utter his name with derision, scorn, and a not-insignificant amount of hurt. These admirers turned detractors love to reference Shyamalan as an all-too-easy shorthand for a specific kind of hubris typified by diminishing returns. (To say nothing of all the vapid twist ending jokes.)

But on the opposing side, there are those who will follow one of the industry's enduring auteurs anywhere he chooses to go. Though their numbers may have dwindled after "Glass," a textbook Hollywood comeback picture, turned out to be a self-defeating curio rather than a triumphant return to form, Shyamalan does still have fans. They just no longer care to argue whether his movies are good or bad anymore, because neither of those descriptors really captures the kind of work he's doing behind the camera.

"Old" is an adaptation of a graphic novel titled "Sandcastle" by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, but its core concept is distinctly Shyamalanian. It follows a family, led by father Guy (Gael García Bernal) and mother Prisca (Vicky Krieps), who bring their daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and son Trent (Nolan River) on a vacation that turns awry when they visit a private beach where time passes faster, artificially aging everyone there. As the tagline goes, a lifetime passes in a single day.

On the surface of the marketing alone, this, like "Glass" before it, has the potential to be a straightforward and focused genre picture that highlights Shyamalan's gifts as a filmmaker without making too many weird creative choices that might otherwise alienate those engaging the film in good faith. A sci-fi/horror tale about aging fast in a secluded, inescapable area? Seems like an easy win.

But "Old" is something else entirely.

They grow up so fast

Spoilers ahead...

If "Old" were just taking the kernel of an idea surrounding rapid, degenerative aging ravaging a family on vacation and extrapolating it to its logical dramatic conclusion, it would be an easier film to recommend. Nestled at the heart of this nesting doll narrative of exponentially odd artistic choices, "Old" is the story of a family in crisis. Guy and Prisca are planning to separate, so this vacation is their attempt to give their kids one final weekend of domestic bliss, manufactured though it may be, before their veneer of peace is ripped away forever. But Maddox and Trent are pretty smart for 11 and 6 years old, respectively. Even they know something is not quite right with their folks.

It's more than a little heavy-handed, but Guy, an insurance actuary constantly fretting about the future, and Prisca, who works in a museum and relishes the past, both need a cosmic lesson in appreciating the present. That Prisca is hiding the appearance of a benign tumor from her children only adds to the pressure. Finding themselves in this predicament with a pair of families from the resort seems par for the course in this type of picture. 

But the source material, as well as Shyamalan's considerable deviations from and additions to the text, throw so many more wrenches at the cast — and by extension, the audience — that it becomes exceedingly difficult to pin "Old" down.

It's as if all six seasons of "Lost" were unfolding with a smaller cast over the course of 108 minutes, with extra mysteries, plot wrinkles, haphazard mythology, and red herrings all hurled with harried intensity like long lobs in an impromptu water balloon fight. At first, trying to solve the strangeness at hand alongside the featured players is a fun prospect. Why are the kids seemingly aging faster than the adults? Why does everyone keep blacking out when they try to leave the beach? Who do they keep seeing watching them from the cliff above? It's genuinely thrilling as a kind of outdoor locked room murder mystery.

But as the baffling details pile up and the sand in the film's hourglass begin to run out, it's clear the likelihood of any meaningful or satisfying catharsis is little more than a pipe dream. Some viewers may continue holding out hope that a traditional Shyamalan twist will deus ex machina away all these pressing questions with a brusque hand wave. 

Unfortunately, as grandiose as the film's final act reveals turn out to be, the twists are borderline pedestrian compared to the endless cavalcade of absurdity "Old" has in store beforehand.

They mess you up, your mum and dad

It must be said that, despite how insane some of the following details will sound upon reading them, Shyamalan still has a singular grasp of how to enrapture an audience. He so effortlessly is able to weave in innocuous jump scares between genuine laugh-out-loud lines and thematically appropriate moments of haunting sincerity. He's still the man who gave us "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," two excellent films whose high-concept genre tinkering proved additionally resonant for the profound way Shyamalan captured an earnest depiction of sadness. 

There are some truly stirring moments throughout "Old" bolstered by a game and nimble cast (including Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, and others as the kids aged up) that will have even the most cynical viewer dabbing their eyes. Without giving away too much, the film does build to a second act curtain-closer that, while brutally sentimental, remains one of the most touching sights this reviewer has seen all year. 

But this is also a movie that shifts its tone so wildly and without any warning that every other scene will give you extreme, confounding whiplash. In one moment, the entire cast must contend with the sobering sight of a naked young woman's corpse washing up on the beach. Then, in the next, Maddox points out that the bewildered black man (Aaron Pierre) who recognizes said body is actually a famous rapper who goes by the name "Mid-Sized Sedan." The audience might be shocked and appalled by the body horror of a doctor played by Rufus Sewell trying to perform surgery on Prisca's growing tumor, then be absolutely gobsmacked by his diminishing mental health manifesting in him demanding the rest of the cast tell him the name of the movie that featured both Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. (It's Arthur Penn's 1976 film "The Missouri Breaks," even if no one else on the beach seems to know this.)

This is all setting aside how ridiculously phrased a bulk of the film's dialogue remains, consistently eliciting either laughter or stunned silence no matter what new tone the film itself has decided to shift into. It is bewildering to see an actress as naturally gifted as Vicky Krieps transform her performance style into the film's off-kilter wavelength, repeatedly nailing line readings that make Mark Wahlberg talking to plants in "The Happening" sound like iambic pentameter. 

The easy read would be to say that Shyamalan's lost it. He's washed up. He can't tell a straightforward genre story anymore without getting lost up the bottomless cavern of his own ass. That read would lead you to believe all the goofy humor on display in "Old" is unintentional, that he possesses no ear for how humans really speak to one another and that the film's wildly careening camera maneuvering is evidence of stylistic rot. 

But there's an objective truth behind the many subjective arguments to be made about whether to see "Old" or how much of Shyamalan's relative capacity as a storyteller remains intact. There is literally no conceivable way this movie isn't this weird on purpose. In the coming weeks, out-of-context clips may find their way online or mined for viral meme fodder. They will no doubt be used as irrefutable evidence that Shyamalan is a hack and this is a new low for the man who gave us an "Unbreakable" sequel with almost no over-the-shoulder shots of Bruce Willis interacting with his co-stars.

There are certainly worse movies that have been released in 2021. Better ones, too. But none of them are quite as fascinating or endlessly rewatchable. Often, when a movie underwhelms or disappoints, it's best to sweep it under a rug and move onto the next thing. There's always more content on the horizon. But "Old" sticks out in a sea of good movies that feel perfunctory and bad ones that don't even have the decency to be entertaining in their utter failure. 

"Old" is a special kind of movie, and hate it or love it, only M. Night Shyamalan is giving us gifts like this.