There are few directors in Hollywood that have a spottier track record than M. Night Shyamalan. Bursting on the scene with the original and disconcerting 1999 film The Sixth Sense, the director has spent the last two decades trying to recapture that mix of mundane, eerie, and unexpected. Muchly relying on a startling twist in the last scene and mostly without success. From Signs, to The Village, The Happening to Lady in the Water, we’ve learned that Shyamalan is a director with great vision, but, like the Olympic hopefuls who don’t quite make the team, a serious inability to stick the landing. In a word, his endings are almost invariably a mess.
There’s lots to like in his latest horror film Old, but it’s yet another in the long list of M. Night Shyamalan films that build to a satisfying crescendo, just to blow everything with a trite and over-long ending sequence.
Old is the story of troubled couple Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), who have arrived at a beautiful tropical resort with their children 6yo Trent (Nolan River) and 11yo Maddox (Alexa Swinton) dutifully in tow. It could be any tropical resort anywhere in the Pacific, with its attentive staff and effusive Resort Manager (Gustaf Hammarsten). We quickly learn that Guy and Prisca’s relationship is in a tough spot, partially because Prisca has a stomach tumor that’s apparently inoperable. A tropical vacation? Just what the family needs.
The next morning, they’re dropped off at an exclusive, secluded and gorgeous private beach. To reach it, they have to wind their way through a slot canyon while carrying all their gear: The hotel driver (Shyamalan himself in a cameo role) doesn’t assist, apologizing that he has to return to the resort soonest. Once they’re on the beach, they find some other people from the resort there too, including Charles (Rufus Sewell) and Chrystal (Abbey Lee), Charles’ mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) and their 6yo daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey). Also on the beach are young couple Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and Jarin (Ken Leung) and celebrity rapper Mid-Size Sedan (Aaron Pierre).
It’s a promising crew and all is idyllic until young Trent bumps into a body in the ocean; it’s Mid-Size Sedan’s missing partner who went out for a swim and vanished. When Grandma Agnes starts to feel poorly even the expert ministrations of surgeon Charles can’t stop the inevitable. What the heck’s going on with this beach? Then Prisca notices that the children have all aged five years in a span of an hour or so. As the trailers explain, there’s something very odd about this secluded spot that makes people age at a fantastic rate, roughly a year every thirty minutes or so.
It’s a great setup for a horror film where things happen really quickly. Before we know it, the six-year-olds Trent and Kara are an intimately paired young couple, seemingly in their late teens. After everyone shares their observations and reason for being on holiday, they realize that every family group has at least one person with a terminal illness of some sort.
Try as they might, though, no one can escape the beach, whether by swimming around the cove or trekking back through the slot canyon. And wouldntcha know it, there’s no cell signal either. And are they actually being watched from the surrounding hills as all of this transpires?
The film plays out as an Agatha Christie and-then-there-were-none sort of mystery as we viewers try to predict who will next age out or perish trying to escape this mysterious beach. Old is very effective up to the very last beach scene, where we’re left with a host of unanswered questions and no sense of whether anyone at all has survived.
At which point, Shyamalan’s weakness emerges with a vengeance in a final act that, while somewhat logical, is so trite and ultimately predictable that you’ll be yelling at the screen to “just end it here! Please, just end it!”. There are a couple of closing scenes where ending the film at that moment could have left viewers puzzled and engaged by the slightly ambiguous wrapup. Instead, it ends, and ends, and ends again, finally leaving even the most avid fan rolling their eyes and muttering “Oh, M. Night, you’ve done it again.”
Lots of films have explored human aging in fascinating ways, from the reverse aging of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to the secretly eternal protagonist in The Age of Adeline. With a completely reimagined ending, Old could join these films as a tale that’s intriguing, horrifying, and provocative. As is, however, it’s a fun and sporadically engaging horror movie marred by a rather banal and, yes, ultimately stupid ending. Worth seeing in the theater if you’re a big horror fan or Shyamalan aficionado, but otherwise wait until Old shows up on HBO, Netflix, or Hulu, as it inevitably will.
Dad At The Movies Note: While Shyamalan generally pulls the camera away when there’s something gross, there are still a few fairly gruesome scenes and some aggressive and violent fights, particularly as one person loses his proverbial marbles as the story proceeds. Probably will be disturbing for younger views, I would suggest this is mid-teens and up only.