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The Ending Of Old Explained

Warning: Contains spoilers for "Old"

If nothing else, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is a man who knows how to end a movie. Sure, sometimes his endings are baffling to a fault, but even when every other element in his films fails to move the needle with the viewer, they're guaranteed to be gobsmacked by his twisty conclusions, usually tuned specifically to upend everything they've seen up to the point of their devastating reveals. From 1999's "The Sixth Sense" to 2002's "Signs," from 2008's "The Happening" through the "Unbreakable/Split/Glass" trilogy, he's been doing it for more than twenty years now.

Shyamalan's latest film "Old" is no different, delivering a stunner of a third act paradigm shift that leaves the audience with plenty to unpack.

Though the film is chock full of ancillary mysteries and unresolved strangeness, its central concern is unraveling the true nature of the supernatural beach head serving as the film's primary location. Three families (led by an eclectic cast including Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell and others) each make their way to a secluded beach at a private resort only to discover two unfortunate developments — that time passes so fast here a lifetime will unfold in a single day, and there is no way to escape.

But despite that rather straightforward premise, the answers waiting at the end of "Old" are more complex than they first appear.

A day in the life

Throughout "Old" and its brisk 108 minute runtime, the viewer is repeatedly bombarded with new information and consternating wrinkles within the film's central conflict, but beneath all the intrigue lies the ticking time clock of the cast's survival. 

When the beach excursion begins, there are eleven characters with their toes in the sand. There's insurance actuary Guy (Bernal), his wife Prisca (Krieps) and their kids Maddox and Trent, each played by a trio of performers as they rapidly age over the course of the day. But they're joined by Rufus Sewell's doctor Charles, his wife Christal (Abbey Lee), his mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) and their daughter Kara (also played by a trio of actors). Add to that, rapper Mid-Size Sedan (Aaron Pierre) who was on the beach when they arrived, and nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) alongside his wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a psychologist, and you've got a whodunit-sized cast of individuals of varied ages, each hurdling towards certain death from accelerated circumstances if they can't make it off the beach.

But one by one, as every potential exit proves untenable — trying to swim against the current kills Jarin, climbing the cliffside and falling fells an adult-aged Kara, everyone who tries to traverse the caverns surrounding the beach blacks out — the surviving inhabitants each succumb to the hardships of aging in their own respective ways, while accepting their fate and trying to enjoy the present with their remaining loved ones.

Guy and Prisca, on the verge of divorce when the film begins due to infidelity and a benign tumor causing the duo to doubt their future together, have no choice but to forget the troubles of the life they led before arriving in this peculiar nexus. Guy slowly loses his vision and Prisca, her hearing, but the two work together to fend off the violent threat of Charles — the doctor hiding a burgeoning schizophrenia that consumes him as the beach ages his mind by years in hours.

Nearly adult-aged Maddox and Trent (played by Thomasin McKenzie and Alex Wolff respectively) must hide from Christal, who has similarly lost her mind and is trying to murder them by heaving rocks from afar. The core family spends one final moonlit moment together, enjoying the peace and tranquility they initially sought this vacation for, even under suboptimal conditions (certain death looming on the horizon, for instance). Guy and Prisca die within moments of one another, mimicking a sped up version of how often elderly couples die within months of each other. 

When the sun rises the next morning, Maddox (now played by Embeth Davidtz) and Trent (Emun Elliott), who began this journey aged 11 and 6, find themselves in middle age, positive they will die but choosing to give escape one last chance. But not before building a sandcastle together, for old times' (yesterday's) sake. In the ensuing play date, Trent remembers the code-breaking game he played with Idlib (Kailen Jude), a child they met at the resort the day before. Idlib seemed to know more about this strange location than he was able to let on, but when Trent decodes the final letter he got before they came to the beach, it reveals a portentous message about the potentially protective powers of the nearby coral.

This convinces Maddox and Trent that swimming through the coral may protect them long enough to get away from the beach and whatever mysterious energies have been hounding them.

But when they try to make this underwater trek, Maddox gets her swimsuit caught and the two appear to drown, the final members of this trip extinguished for good. 

The men behind the curtain

It is at this point that the film pulls back to reveal the murky figure that has been observing the beach this entire time, heretofore only seen in glimpses from afar. 

It's the hotel van driver who dropped them all off in the first place, played by M. Night Shyamalan himself (Shyamalan, much like Alfred Hitchcock in his day, has long made it a point to cameo in the films he directs). But he's no simple hotel employee. Based on the interactions he has over his phone, he is one of the resort's many researchers, and everything we have seen unfold is just part of a larger experiment. The 73rd in a series, it would seem.

The Resort Manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) is actually in charge of this facility, which was erected to understand the natural anomaly of the beach and figure out how to use its mystical properties for the betterment of mankind. Every member of the cast was chosen because of a specific ailment they suffered from, whether it be Prisca's tumor or Charles' schizophrenia, so that they could have experimental new drugs tested on them. Because of the time acceleration, medical trials that typically take years can unfold over the course of hours. Even though this cast had no survivors, the new drug they designed to help with epilepsy did prevent Patricia from having a seizure for 16 years in beach time. The gathered masses of the resort's staff consider this a huge win, because even though we the audience just watched eleven people die, the data gathered from this protracted slaughter will help save thousands of lives.

Or at least, that is how everyone involved justifies the work they do. Some of the scientists object to the specifics of procedure and how they need to stop pairing the mental health patients with the physical ailment ones, as Charles did wind up murdering multiple people over the course of the experiment, something they hint has been occurring with increasing frequency. But the Manager implies that it's unlikely they'll be changing their methods anytime soon.

It's not like anyone has survived to complain. Or have they?

The end of the experiment

Earlier in the film, Trent — when he was still a child — would walk up to every new adult character and ask them their name and occupation. It seemed like an easy way for Shyamalan to help audiences keep track of the numerous side players in "Old," but it was also seeding for the film's final twist. 

As a brand new crop of patients arrives at the resort, we see a fellow visitor from the film's opening relaxing on the patio and hear a familiar voice ask if he's a cop. We then remember Trent meeting this man the day before, and realize the voice is adult Trent who, alongside Maddox, survived the coral and is now passing along a diary a previous beach inhabitant kept, listing everyone that died from their trial, their full names and home addresses.

The cop calls home to look up some of the names, discovering that every single one of them is a missing persons case. At the same time, Trent and Maddox interrupt the new resort inhabitants from having their welcome cocktails, the delivery system used to pump them full of the experimental drugs, and begin to tell their stories to the remaining tenants, many of whom have their smartphones out recording their story. 

We see the survivors being helicoptered out of the island, as it is explained that the entire operation is being shuttered and everyone involved will be brought to justice. But Trent and Maddox must now go meet their aunt, their only remaining relative, who is now a few years their junior.

The film leaves the audience pondering a number of unresolved questions, but the one that matters the most, perhaps, is whether this experiment coming to an end is truly for the greater good or not.

Prepare for some post-theater debate amongst friends. That is, if they can stop scratching their heads long enough to form a personal thesis.