Picture this: it is the age of gentle, end-of-season rain; there is a new Shyamalan movie out, starring Gael Garcia Bernal; you like Gael Garcia Bernal because he was in Y tu mama tambien and that movie was an awakening for you. You do not trust Shyamalan, however (grass that kills, you cannot make this up), so you are a wee bit skeptical, but regardless, you decide to give it a go.
You end up falling asleep halfway through the second act and have to rewind the whole thing because your laptop is old (haha), your movie player got stuck because you scrubbed too fast, and life is simply a dark interval between life and death.
I borrow that (in an exceedingly less erudite fashion) from Rilke, who I can confidently say, was a lover of death. “You will freeze in place if you remain this way,” he writes to Sidonie von Borutin on confronting death. “You must move.” This hurtling toward the end at the speed of two years per half an hour is at the center of Old, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest feature.
I say “center” and not “heart” because frankly, the film has no heart. It is beautifully shot. The camerawork is calm but ceaselessly in motion, easily the best part of a film about the indifferent passage of time. Shots linger poignantly; Chrystal and her mother-in-law, carrying a child and a dog respectively, and wearing the same wide-brimmed hats; 6-year-old Kara frozen in a game of tag; Prisca up close, blocking one ear with her palm, accepting the fact that she is deaf in the other ear.
It is moments like these when Old truly shines. It also fools you into thinking that it is a better movie than it actually is. The biggest letdown is the cardboard cutouts with human-like dialogue. Each character is a sum of their profession: Guy is an indecisive actuary, Prisca is a past-dwelling curator, Jarin is an empathetic nurse, Patricia is a psychologist who psychologizes, ad infinitum. Abbey Lee gets the worst treatment as a trophy wife with a calcium deficiency because of her restrictive diet (note: this sentence is best read with an eye roll). The dialogue is almost entirely expositional, and in the second act, criminally bad because it begins to undo the beach’s mystique.
With characters so caricatured, the film fails to make us care about any of them, and their eventual deaths are therefore inconsequential. There is community in death, it’s inevitability something universally relatable. “It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,” Walt Whitman observes, “the dark threw its patches upon me also.” Death is the ultimate equalizer, sublime in its reach. It is what made audiences in ancient Greek theatrons cry in harmony with the suffering hero onstage.
And yet, as characters succumb to the beach and wither away, the only feeling death in Old invokes is crushing ennui.
There is a good movie in here somewhere, one that shakes your shoulder and asks you what you would do if you were to age 50 years in 24 hours in the horrifically sped up vacuum of the beach, watch your parents grow grooved and lined, father a child, and watch both your lover and child die. Somewhere underneath the landfill of exposition lies a softer truth about the cruel mistress that is time, about the scalding nature of death greatly accelerated by disease and unfortunate circumstance.
Unfortunately for us, Shyamalan wants to scream out the truth. He is always there to remind us what is going on through bad dialogue (“Something is going on with time at this beach!”) and by appearing as the driver who takes the characters to the beach, oversees their activities, and reports to the lab. That’s right! The beach is a front for a pharmaceutical company conducting accelerated clinical trials on unsuspecting subjects, a twist truly out of left field (note: this sentence is best read in a monotone, forego the eye-roll; it is not worth it).
I gave this movie a fair shot, mostly because everyone was unanimously laughing at it. The Sixth Sense / Signs veneer around Shyamalan has long since faded and since I am not a fan of either Split or Glass, I will not say it was ever revived. But there is no denying that there are some things he does exceptionally well. Visually, Old is impeccable. The unbroken shots are fantastic. The slow reveal of the aged-up children is perfectly done.
How wonderful would it have been if this were a silent film, with only the sound of the roaring river lapping wildly at the sand? But Shyamalan overplays his hand, bleaching the film of all soul. What was it those Englishmen said?
Goodbye Mr. [S]! You had all the answers but no human touch.
K.S. is an aspiring writer/poet with a green thumb, and an immense love for Rochester garbage plates. One of the aforementioned is a lie.