M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Old’ Distorts Time for a Thriller Both Exciting and Thoughtful

It is already common to fear the future or feel uncertainty about what is to come in life. Now imagine having to live it all in one day. That’s the intriguing narrative seed director M. Night Shyamalan plants in his latest mind-bender, “Old.” It is a welcome return to form for Shyamalan, who in the early aughts established himself as a modern master of suspense produced through well-crafted cinema. Shyamalan’s first hits had that unique blend of aesthetic and entertainment, where you could appreciate a shot as in an art film, or simply escape for two hours. “Old” first grabs attention with its mysteries, before turning into a surprisingly reflective meditation on the passage of time.

The story is set in a tropical resort, where a mixture of families and couples seek escape from city life. We meet Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and their two children. Also arriving at the resort is a surgeon, Charles (Rufus Sewell) with younger wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), daughter Kara (Mikaya Fisher) and Charles’s mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). There’s also a nurse, Jarin (Ken Leung) and his wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird). When they all go hiking into a secluded, pristine beach, everyone feels they can relax. That is until a body washes ashore, belonging to the companion of a rap star, Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who sits alone on the beach. Soon a more startling revelation presents itself. Everyone on the beach is beginning to rapidly age. First the kids leap a few years, resulting in Guy and Prisca’s kinds, Trent (Alex Wolff) and Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie), as well as Kara (now played by Eliza Scanlen), facing a rush of hormones and other feelings. As the adults desperately seek answers, some lose their minds, while others try to figure out how to escape.

“Old” is one of the more curious yet engaging of Shyamalan’s recent films. Best known as the director of “The Sixth Sense,” which forever established the “they were dead all along” twist as a standard, Shyamalan had fallen into a bit of a stump after some strong films. After 2019’s disappointing “Glass,” the sequel to his hyper-realistic superhero movie “Unbreakable,” now Shyamalan returns to a more classic form of thriller where it all begins with a simple, universal idea. Based on the graphic novel “Sandcastle” by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, “Old” plays like smart but pulpy sci-fi, akin to “TheTwilight Zone” or “Black Mirror,” but tailored to Shyamalan’s popcorn sensibilities. He first knows how to properly set up the intrigue. Who is the quiet rapper now sitting by the shore? Why was the dead girl with him? There’s a cave nearby that could potentially lead beyond the beach, but whenever someone tries to step inside an invisible force pushes them back, knocking them unconscious. Like “Lord of the Flies,” power plays ensue and manic despair sets in. Gael Garcia Bernal recently told Entertainment Voice that, “[Night] has a very strong use of cinematic language, he owns it, and this allows him to make choices and open pathways that deliver with great risk as well. I appreciate that a lot from his work. He’s a unique voice in cinema.”

Shyamalan has always excelled at sketching vivid characters. What helps “Old” become absorbing is that everyone has a distinct personality. Garcia Bernal’s Guy is the sober dad trying to protect his family, even if we learn early on that he and Prisca are on the verge of divorce. In a different movie Rufus Sewell would be the doctor guiding everyone through the treatment of injuries or other essentials movie doctors excel at like supermen. But here the crisis exposes his frail mental state which leads to fits where he rambles delusional sentences and might just stab someone. The lesser intriguing characters are probably Jarin and Patricia, who can feel like extra wheels added to the whole machinery of the plot. Abbey Lee’s Chrystal undergoes a better story arch from a vain trophy wife to a terrified, stressed individual. “Night is like one of those painters who works with tiny precision,” said Alex Wolff when talking to Entertainment Voice about the shoot. “It veers away from anything too narrow. At the same time he’s painting a bigger canvas. He hits on themes that might just be found in some Ingmar Bergman movie but he makes it so thrillingly entertaining. That kind of balance is one in a million, and he does it in this confined space. That’s something only directors like Bergman, Bunuel or Hitchcock can do.”

But in the end it’s not really the characters on their own that make “Old” an effective thriller. Shyamalan uses the gimmick of rapid aging to play around with the idea of life cycles at high speed. Suddenly one of the girls can become pregnant, or the adults begin to experience blindness and the body’s inevitable aches and slowness. What happens when you reach the age where your memory is so hazy, you can’t even remember why you haven’t left the island? “I wouldn’t say it’s about the fear of growing older but about the curiosity of growing wiser in a way. That’s what interested me in playing this part,” said Bernal. Shyamalan mixes the intensity of trying to leave the beach with quieter scenes where an aging Clay and Prisca wonder about life and fate, or Chrystal, who once looked like a supermodel, is terrified of anyone seeing her aging self. Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie are particularly good in these moments, capturing their characters being forced into maturity. This all eventually does lead to a Shyamalan twist at the end, which is a paranoid explanation more than fit for our times. 

“All the characters are representations of human angst,” said Wolff in expanding on how Shyamalan’s entrapped characters resonate. “They’re allegorical but are still fully fleshed out human beings. I would even say he nails the extreme romance of youth, like Bergman or in a Shakespearean sort of way. I responded to that too…I hope it appeals to audiences because right now so many people are like someone lost in the desert just wanting that sip of water. As for me, I learned a ton from Gael Garcia Bernal and everyone else. He led the charge. Egos were tossed out the door, everyone brought their best and were incredible influences on me. Night even told me, ‘go crazy with this, go wild.’”

“Old” on the surface may sound gimmicky, but Shyamalan knows how to take a familiar premise and make it absorbing again.  After a while his own gimmick of revelatory trick endings became a running joke amongst moviegoers, especially after the way he ended what is an otherwise underrated and gorgeous film, “The Village,” about pilgrims who turned out to be self-exiled people from a modern city. But in “Old” the twist works and feels pulled out of some internet conspiracy theory sold in a way that’s believable enough. But more haunting are the moments where the characters feel their bodies begin to grow weak, and their old lives feel so distant, even though it’s only been a day. As an entertainment the movie is never boring, but it also has the added layer of contemplating how life can feel fleeting. We rarely pay attention to how important our time is, until it begins to slip away. For Bernal, the excitement of not knowing what will happen also shaped his approach to the story. “I was mostly curious about what was going to happen. The script presents a big challenge but with a very interesting premise. It’s nice when the premise of the story is something that gives us the challenge of not knowing where we’re going.”

Old” releases July 23 in theaters nationwide.