M. Night Shyamalan’s most recent feature finds him doing precisely what he does best. Old is a tightly wound thriller based on a simple concept, which Shyamalan then manipulates and explores to tremendous effect. While not quite as impressive as the early films that initially made his reputation, it boats some outstanding moments of horror that will not be forgotten in a hurry.
A group of holidaymakers at a luxury resort are enticed with the offer of a secret beach trip, away from the resort and hidden inside a nature preserve. Once there, however, they find themselves trapped and unable to leave – and each of them begins ageing at an accelerated rate.
It is fascinating to see how Shyamalan’s technique has developed and changed over time. Those famous early hits, including The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, worked on a deep, uneasy atmosphere and a measured pace that ratcheted up tension over time. More recently his films have traded stillness for speed and subtlety for pulp horror. Most of us get at least pre-occupied with thoughts of growing old and eventually dying. In an environment where everyone – young or elderly, or in-between – ages at a rate of one year every half hour, that pre-occupation become visceral terror. It is a simple concept, and that makes it very easy to comprehend. Shyamalan stretches the concept in a variety of directions, with each idea maximised for a chain of squirm-inducing set pieces.
With its frantic pace and pulpy focus, there is not a great deal of character development. It simply isn’t necessary. Shyamalan relies on a well-chosen cast of actors to paper over the cracks. Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps are very effective as troubled couple Guy and Prisca – they’re separating, but haven’t told their children Trent (Nolan River) and Maddox (Alexa Swinton) yet. Less successful at first are Rufus Sewell and Abbey Lee as a wealthy surgeon and his trophy wife, elderly mother (Kathleen Chalfont) in tow, who initially feel like they’ve walked out of an Agatha Christie mystery and onto the wrong beach. It is worth noting, however, that they get better as the film goes on – they’re given much better material in the second half.
When the adults age it is expressed via excellent make-up and prosthetics. As the children age, it is via an excellent series of recastings. It is a mark of both good acting and strong direction that Maddox (Swinton, Thomasin McKenzie, and Embeth Davitz) and Trent (River, Alex Wolff, and Emun Elliot) feel consistent throughout. It is a refreshing contrast to the unconvincing and creepy computer-generated efforts undertaken for The Irishman, Aquaman, and various Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm productions.
Old represents the sort of solid mid-range thriller that use to litter the multiplexes 25 years ago. It boasts a strong central conceit, a simple storyline, and an enthused exploration of every unsettling, tragic, and downright frightening consequence of that core idea.