According to the myth, before Oedipus could enter the city of Thebes, he had to answer a question from the mythical creature known as the Sphinx. Answer properly and he could continue on his journey. Answer wrong and he would be swallowed whole. The riddle: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” This question gets the heart of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, an adaption of Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters’s graphic novel Sandcastle, which takes place almost entirely on an inescapable private beach which fast-forwards biological time at an extraordinary rate. Equal parts nihilistic meditation on the fruitless pursuit to escape death, body horror extravaganza, and reflection on the pure optimism of youth, Old highlights the strengths and weaknesses which maintain Shyamalan’s reputation as a controversial director.
Off on a family getaway, Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) accept an invitation from their hotel manager to take them and their children, Maddox and Trent (Alexa Swinton and Nolan River) to a remote beach offering a unique view thanks to an unexplained natural occurrence in the minerals surrounding the beach. Joined by another family and couple, they plan for a delightful day of quiet and quality time with their families. All of this changes when a body washes ashore and none of them can leave to contact the hotel. At first, the worst thing they fear is the uncertainty of being stranded with a dead body, until Guy and Prisca realize that their children have aged tremendously in the brief time they’ve been on the beach. As each passing second equates to days of their life gone, can they find a way get free before all that remains of them is dust and sand?
Everything written above is, more or less, contained within the trailer for the film, so it feels less like a spoiler to offer that up as an explanation for the narrative within. If you’re familiar with Shyamalan’s work, then you’re likely familiar with his reputation for twists (though there haven’t been that many over the course of his career), so please understand that Old places all of its cards in front of you almost from the jump. It’s less direct than Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) which featured prominently displayed artistic renderings of events for the film well before they occurred, but there are still things which occur within Old that make it plain what’s happening. Having not read Sandcastle, I can’t speak to whether this is from the source material or if it’s a means of trying to deflate anyone searching for a surprise, but it doesn’t entirely work, especially because, with the premise being up front, much of the moments designed to instill tension or terror don’t work. For instance, the fact that the kids age up is hidden via over-the-shoulder shots so that we, the audience, can tell something is different if we look closely. Perhaps if this aspect had been hidden in the trailer it would pack more of a wallop, but already knowing that older Maddox and Trent are played by the individually fabulous Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) and Alex Wolff (The Cat and the Moon) reduces any emotional impact. Instead, the bulk of the first act and much of the second is spent waiting for things to get to where you know they’re going before things really begin to get exciting. As a comparison, consider if you didn’t know that Hulk appeared in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and found out at the same moment that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) does: that kind of joy mixed with shock can’t be replicated. By placing all of their cards on the table and not accounting for this in the narrative, you spend a great deal of precious time waiting for Old to maintain any kind of grip.
What’s surprising about the film, though, is the resonance of the themes within. It does get a little heavy-handed, but it’s hard to ignore the notions explored of what’s important in life while watching a group of people rapidly age out of existence. Especially after 16 months of on-off lockdowns, extended social distancing, and, in some cases, absolute separation from loved ones, there’s this growing feeling of raging against the clock which never stops even as our lives appear to. The fight to control aging is, for many, Sisyphean, as we hope to speed up time in our youth only to try to find a pause button as we grow closer to middle age and beyond. Just as breaking waves upon a shore wash away deep footprints, so does time eventually wash us all away. When Old narrows the focus, allowing the characters to explore this philosophical conflict, the film is truly riveting, drawing you in closer until you feel like you’re trapped on the beach with them. Especially with some fantastic elements achieved via practical effects, make-up applications, sound design, and camera work, the loss of control over bodily autonomy becomes truly horrific, chilling you to the bone. Personally, as I’ve just hit 40 and have had multiple doctor appointments include someone telling me that I’m at the age where “stuff just breaks,” observing characters rapidly losing sight, hearing, muscle strength, or failing prey to other biological maladies is about as emotionally terrifying as an emergency surgery with no anesthesia.
Unfortunately, though, the common plague of any Shyamalan project resides within Old. At 108 minutes, the film takes it time to build tension, which it desperately needs after spoiling so much of it via the marketing, but right as the film succeeds in offering a rather satisfying conclusion, it overstays its welcome. From a bit of research, it appears that the ending of Old differs from Sandcastle, having taken suggested ideas from the novel and made them concrete. To a degree, the change works as it takes some things implied early in the film and gives the audience enough to draw their own conclusions. However, by going even further, spelling things out to a painful degree, much of the terrible wonder, the torturous intrigue turns to vapor. It’s about as frustrating as the end of Glass (2019), his last film, which worked to subvert the expectations of audiences looking for a traditional superhero ending but kept going so far past that moment as to become ruinous to the whole.
Even with the kind of direction that reminds you how good Shyamalan is, performances by a cast that sell their unbridled terror, or a script with impressive logic at its center, the journey to get there is arduous and the closing moments dissatisfy. Moments of the film will likely linger, two scenes specifically come to mind and I’ll try to remember during end of year considerations, but the film as a whole is not something which requires additional viewing. Where some might go back to Split (2016), examining the various clues Shyamalan placed in the run-up to the ending or just enjoying the fantastic ride, there’s little within Old that requires this. With the mystery so blatantly exposed, you’ll easily be able to move on, spending your time on something else.
In theaters July 23rd, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Old website.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.