We all have a friend like M. Night Shyamalan.
You know what I mean?
It's the friend who has immense potential but never quite lives up to it. It's the friend with visionary ideas and absolutely no clue how to bring them to life. It's the friend who coulda been and shoulda been reach but is still living in mom's basement.
Okay, well, at least Shyamalan isn't living in mom's basement.
The truth is there's a truly visionary film bubbling underneath the cinematic surface of M. Night's latest vision that goes nowhere Old.
This is a film with potential. Remarkable potential. It's also a film that for the most part fails, sometimes laughably so, and it's a film that never begins to live up to its few brilliant moments when we're looking at the screen thinking to ourselves "This could have been amazing."
It's not amazing. It's simply not.
I am not an M. Night hater, though neither am I a devotee and I've never even been quite convinced of the brilliance that everyone else seems to see in The Sixth Sense or the handful of other projects that have kept us watching M. Night's films despite knowing better.
There were times when Old felt like what would have happened if Couples Retreat had been a thriller. It's a mishmash of Twilight Zone-tinged ideas that never quite gels into a complete hole. A visionary film demands that the filmmaker be able to communicate that vision to his cast and crew in order to get their buy-in.
Old feels like that never quite happened. Old often feels like individual members of the ensemble cast are on different pages of the same book. Performances feel loosely connected, yet not remotely cohesive. Could this be intentional? Absolutely. If so, it's a horrible filmmaking choice that doesn't work.
I recently reviewed an indie thriller called The Awakening of Lilith, a South Carolina-shot microcinema project made for right around $3,000 with an all-volunteer cast. It's more thrilling, more engaging, and vastly superior to Old in virtually every way. It's a wonderful thriller precisely because writer/director Steven Adam Renkovish enfolded his ensemble into his vision and the entire ensemble bought in beautifully.
Old, on the other hand, was so weirdly absurd that I half expected Herve Villechaize to rise from the dead and point to the skies proclaiming "De plane, boss, de plane!"
Absurdity would be fine if Shyamalan didn't take himself so damn seriously. It's Shyamalan himself, I dare say, who ultimately gets in the way of Old rising to its potential.
M. Night writes Old loosely inspired by Frederik Peeters' 2010 novel Sandcastle. We're first introduced to Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), a married couple on the verge of splitting up but taking a last family vacation with kids Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and Trent (Nolan River). If you don't get the heebie jeebies the first time you lay eyes on the resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten), then you're not paying attention. You know the minute he offers the family access to an exclusive side of the resort on the other side of a nature preserve that things aren't going to go well.
Of course, they don't.
The family is joined by a quartet of entitled, disconnected miscreants who are dropped off with food provisions by a van driver (Shyamalan himself) with a promise that they'll be picked up at 5pm. This quartet includes a doctor (Rufus Sewell), his considerably younger wife (Abbey Lee), and their young daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey). They are joined, much to Maddox's delight, by rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) and eventually by another seemingly stable married couple Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird).
The stage is set.
It's no secret that Old revolves around the passage of time, a passage that will be most noteworthy as youngsters Maddox and Trent are transformed into adolescents (played by Eliza Scanlen, Alex Woolf, and Thomasin McKenzie). Clearly, something strange is happening on this coastline and everyone present seems powerless to stop it.
There is literally no doubt that some will resonate with M. Night's vision here. M. Night himself has accused us before of not tapping into his satirical cinema and I see great potential for such a defense with Old.
I would argue that it for the most part doesn't work.
I accept, and even celebrate, that some will disagree.
Old is a psychological thriller with hints of body horror, though Shyamalan never really commits himself to anything resembling horror and Old never really elicits anything other than a moderate chill. One key scene in a cave is meant to be unnerving. Instead, it's mostly giggle-inducing.
However, despite my own lack of willingness to recommend Old, I can't deny that there are occasional moments when we get a rather pristine and clear vision of M. Night's vision and it is rather intriguing. The film, despite its campy absurdity, is paced remarkably well and the talented ensemble cast manages to stay afloat despite being saddled with what should be regarded as one of the year's worst scripts thus far in 2021.
I wanted to surrender to Old, but it simply never happened. I wanted to care about these characters, but I simply never did. I wanted to find myself in sync with Shyamalan's unique rhythm but too much of Old feels disjointed and quirky for the sake of being quirky.
The simple truth is that Old has the structure and atmosphere of M. Night films past and feels overly familiar in all the wrong ways. The only true joy I got out of the film was when anyone would die I would shout at the screen "I see dead people" and I would laugh deliriously.
Old isn't really a bad motion picture. Old is also most definitely not a good motion picture. Old is simply the latest M. Night motion picture to leave me mumbling about miss potential and good ideas gone awry. I'm not quite ready to abandon my good friend M. Night Shyamalan, but I sure do wish he'd start living up to his potential.
Of course, he probably says the same thing about me.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic