In M. Night Shyamalan’s widely derided 2004 mystery-thriller The Village, the elders of a small 19th century town place the well-being of their people behind a “greater good.” They make small sacrifices to maintain an elaborate artifice that ensures the stability of future generations; not just for the quality of their livelihoods, but for the stability of the lie itself. This question of minor suffering for the sake of some bigger picture is asked again in Shyamalan’s latest venture, an empathetic sci-fi tale of a universal fear. After the director’s return from Hollywood jail following a string of critical and commercial failures, with three films that rebuilt goodwill with audiences, critics and the studio system, Shyamalan’s newest film is far more in line with his previous thematic sensibilities than what was touted in the warm reviews for his 2015 found footage horror film, The Visit. Glimmers of this could be seen in Glass, Shyamalan’s take on the superhero film and threequel to 2016’s massively successful Split and 2000’s Unbreakable. The reception to The Visit and Split proclaimed that Shyamalan was “back,” but Glass—a deeply earnest critical miss—portended the director’s true return to form with Old.
Old centers on an outwardly perfect nuclear family that is, of course, quietly fracturing. Husband Guy (Gael García Bernal), a risk assessor, and wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), a museum curator, spit at one another over their impending separation and an as-yet-unknown medical diagnosis given to Prisca while on their vacation away at a beautiful, tropical resort with their two kids: Pre-teen Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six-year-old Trent (Nolan River). Neither of their children know the nature of their parents’ marital dissolution or their mother’s medical condition, though the kids are clearly used to the fighting by now, but Guy and Prisca have agreed to drop the news on them following the trip. In the meantime, Trent befriends the lonely nephew (Kailen Jude) of the resort’s manager (Gustaf Hammarsten), while Maddox frets over her burgeoning adolescence—no longer an innocent child, not quite yet a teenager.
Unsurprisingly, there is something immediately off about the Anamika resort. The employees are a little too kind, a little too smiley; too accommodating and eager to make sure their guests are content to the point where the manager goes out of his way to recommend to the family the resort’s separate, secluded beach within a nature preserve nearby, simply because he “likes them.” Though initially thought to be a private excursion, the bus ride to the beach reveals that they won’t be alone. They are accompanied by vain, calcium-deficient mother Chrystal (Abby Lee), doctor husband Charles (Rufus Sewell), their young daughter Kara (Mikaya Fisher) and Charles’ mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). The two families are further joined by nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and his partner Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), an epileptic.
The quiet day, isolated from the resort’s overcrowded main beach, starts off peacefully enough—children playing, selfie-taking, problem-avoiding—until everything slowly, carefully begins to unravel. The children discover lost personal items from the hotel hidden beneath the sand; Charles’ mother-in-law experiences strange pains in her chest; a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre)—yes, that’s right—lingers strangely at a distance as an earlier brief, cryptic scene between him and an anonymous young woman on the beach leads us to understand that something has gone seriously wrong. And that’s when the body turns up.
As fear and confusion escalate among the beach-goers, Shyamalan expertly disorients the audience along with them, crafting an atmosphere of deep claustrophobia despite being surrounded by the vastness of the open ocean. The moments leading up to the realization that all three children have drastically aged are like living inside a panic attack: Mike Gioluakis’ cinematography alternates close-ups of anguished faces as they are flanked by various disarray on all sides. Prisca feels certain that the children must be “reacting to something,” which is a genuinely hilarious rationalization of sudden aging, but efforts to get off the beach are unsuccessful. Making one’s way through the enormous rock formations that separate the beach from the inland causes the beach-goers to black out, landing them right back where they came from.
Loosely adapted from Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters’ graphic novel Sandcastle, Old is a simple tale of cosmic terror—a Twilight Zone-esque look at mortality and greater-good sacrifice of life that is creepy, beautifully set up and followed through. The actors are tasked with not only playing their given characters, but shifting their characters’ personalities and behaviors meticulously as they age, their bodies and minds slowly deteriorating little by little, as it is revealed that most of the adults carry mental and physical ailments. This is no small feat: Simultaneously, the younger actors wrestle with hormonal, rapidly-changing yet still childlike minds, seamlessly portrayed each in adolescent form by Eliza Scanlen (Kara), Thomasin Mackenzie (Maddox) and Alex Wolff (Trent). But the grotesque rapid aging and bodily growths are never physically depicted on screen. Instead, Shyamalan opts for crows’ feet suddenly appearing at the corners of Vicky Krieps’ eyes, or lines abruptly cradling the sides of Thomasin Mackenzie’s cheeks. The in-between moments as the children shift into teens are shot in slightly off-frame faces and turned backs. The easy route of gratuitous body horror in a horror film about aging is, on the whole, exchanged for subtlety. This is far more tasteful, though underwhelming, as Old never really gets much scarier or surprising than its trailer, with the most frightening moment of bodily distortion deflated by cartoonish CGI as opposed to the carnality that could be conveyed through practical FX.
The signature Shyamalan “twist” is arguably less outlandish than some may come to expect. It’s a predictable conclusion that harkens back to the questions originally posed by The Village 17 years ago, conveying the morality battle between societal progression for the sake of a few. Another oft-used theme within Shyamalan’s work, one of humanity vs. nature, is also employed—an idea felt far deeper in our increasingly climate-ravaged world of 2021. But more than reused themes or expected twists that critics and audiences feel defines Shyamalan’s work, it’s the humane earnestness of Shyamalan’s earlier films, which partly helped to deter audiences, that now returns in full form with Old—a welcome relief from the glut of irony-poisoned blockbusters that want to distance themselves from human emotion.
In the end, the scariest thing in Old is not that our bodies will age and decay, or that nature is punishing our very intrusive presence within it (much like the beach-goers’ intrusion on the lush, natural world), but that we will spend our lives preoccupied by ultimately meaningless problems and frivolities with ourselves and one another that rapidly consume our ticking clocks, while people in positions of power view our short lives as expendable for some perceived “greater good.” Old is not Shyamalan’s best film, nor is it the best film so far this summer, but it’s both a chilling summer escape and an empathetic reminder that other people are working against us as just as quickly as time, when all we have in our time left is each other.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Eliza Scanlen, Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff, Abbey Lee, Aaron Pierre, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Embeth Davidtz, Emun Elliott, Kathleen Chalfant
Release Date: July 23, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.