By James Slaymaker.
Old reveals itself to be a deeply nuanced, emotionally resonant, structurally experimental and formally rigorous work of art. It’s also a work clearly informed by the collective trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though it doesn’t make any explicit references….”
This article contains spoilers for M. Night Shyamalan’s Old
Fairly late in Old (2021), M. Night Shyamalan’s latest meditation on mortality, paranoia, self-determination, and the inexorable forward march of time, Trent and Maddox Cappa, beginning the film as children, awaken from a night of sleep to find that they are the only two members of their tourist group who remain alive, and that their bodies have physically grown into middle age. By this point in the narrative, the nature of the Cappa’s situation has been made abundantly clear, to the characters and to the audience: living organisms on the beach experience temporal acceleration so advanced that a half-hour of perceived time becomes a full year of biological time. Because of the vast gulf between time as experienced on the beach and time as experienced elsewhere, any attempt to leave the spot results in the character becoming unable to physically and mentally adjust, resulting in a sensation of disorientation so intense that they have no choice but to retreat back to where they started. While the other characters who initially found themselves in the circumstances as the Cappas have either succumbed to biological deterioration, succumbed to insanity, or suffered fatal injuries as the result of botched escape efforts, Trent and Maddox remain lucid. After reflecting on their plight and remaining careful not to lapse into despair, the pair uncover a cryptic reference to an underwater coral passage in a letter written to them by an island native during the first act. With no other options available, they place their faith in the possibility that the message was included as a clue as to how they may make it off the shore without losing consciousness. Aware of the massive amount of time that has already been wiped off their lives, and aware that every minute they spend on the shore is aging them even further, Trent and Maddox nevertheless make the conscious choice to take some time to build sandcastles before seeking out this potential exit.
This scene, in which two children decide to enjoy a fleeting break from the immense pressure of their situation to lose themselves in the sensory pleasures of the immediate moment, thus defiantly showing that they will not perceive themselves as being mere victims of time’s relentless flow, perfectly encapsulates Shyamalan’s preternatural ability to mine pathos from what may seem, at first glance, to be a ludicrous high-concept premise. The astonishing critical and commercial success of his third feature The Sixth Sense rapidly turned out to be a double-edged sword for Shyamalan: on the one hand, it transformed the then 29-year-old filmmaker into a household name virtually overnight, providing him with the clout necessary to finance a series of idiosyncratic, deeply personal features while retaining total creative control; on the other hand, the very critical establishment which once hailed him as an epochal visionary soon started to perceive his recurring authorial impulses not as the product of a mature auteurist perspective but as a sign that the filmmaker was unable to advance beyond his breakout work. The most celebrated aspect of The Sixth Sense, of course, was its twist ending, a rug-pull (borrowed from Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, 1962) which has been endlessly referenced, parodied and imitated in the years since its release, and has genuinely earned the status of iconic moment of modern American cinema. The problem is that placing sole emphasis on Shyamalan’s narrative sleight-of-hand tended to undersell the sophistication of his accomplishment. The finale isn’t impressive just because it successfully tricks the audience, but because the film’s study of melancholia and urban disconnection is enriched by the audience’s realization that they have been unable to differentiate between those who roam Shyamalan’s Philadelphia as corporeal bodies and those who haunt its streets as ethereal specters.
As a result, Shyamalan’s greatest qualities as a storyteller were overlooked and critics developed the unhealthy habit of judging each of his subsequent films based on how effectively the ending was able to deceive them. Shyamalan – a sensitive, subdued artist whose embrace of allegory is rooted in a desire to address and work through collective anxiety and trauma – was treated like a magician expected to outdo himself with every new trick. Unbreakable and Signs received largely warm receptions, though the prevailing critical attitude was that Shyamalan was failing to live up to his early promise. The release of The Village definitively marked the point at which the critical tide turned on the wunderkind. In the opinion of this reviewer, The Village remains one of Shyamalan’s greatest achievements, a piercing critique of the manufactured paranoia and creeping authoritarianism that characterized Bush’s America post-9/11. Critics at the time, however, tended to respond to The Village with bemusement, at best, and outright hostility, at worst. Many complained that the ‘twist’ was too obvious and/or heavily telegraphed, overlooking the fact that the strength of The Village lies in its gradual unraveling of narrative information which elucidates its socio-political analysis, rather than in the shock of the climactic scene which makes the dark secret at the core of its titular hamlet explicit. The widespread sense of Shyamalan fatigue intensified with the release of his next two features, The Lady in the Water, an exploration of role of mythmaking in providing a lens through which we interpret our lives, and The Happening, a self-consciously old-fashioned disaster film which purposefully transposes the anxiety of nuclear annihilation which pervaded B-movies of the cold war era to a new age of impending ecological catastrophe. Both were written off as gimmicky curios from a one-trick pony who was past his sell-by date, and Shyamalan reached a critical low-point with the blockbuster-scale projects which followed: The Last Airbender, an ill-fated adaptation of a Nickelodeon children’s series which seemed to infuriate fans of the show and alienate newcomers in equal measure; and After Earth, a project conceived by Will Smith to be the starting point of a sci-fi franchise fronted by himself and his son, Jaden Smith.
Neither The Last Airbender nor After Earth were deserving of the hyperbolic critical venom directed at them, but the one-two punch of high-profile disappointments appeared to put a final nail in the coffin of Shyamalan’s career. Just as the filmmaker seemed to be a spent force, however, Shyamalan returned with the self-financed horror film The Visit, a deconstructionist riff on the found-footage genre which also happens to be a deeply felt reflection on familial breakdown. Though not exactly an out-and-out hit, The Visit received the most positive reception of any Shyamalan feature since Signs, paving the way for a quasi-comeback which continued with Split, a covert sequel to Unbreakable which only revealed its connection to the earlier film in its final scene, and Glass, the conclusion to the trilogy. After this trifecta of modest successes, Shyamalan is thankfully no longer treated as the walking punchline he was perceived as during the middle phase of his career, yet one can’t help but detect a continued reluctance on the part of critics to approach his films with the respect they deserve. Despite granting Old a rare 5-star rating, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw describes Shyamalan’s latest as ‘audacious, ingenious hokum’ and tempers his praise with the description of the film’s narrative as ‘enjoyably preposterous’. Along similar lines, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody writes that Shyamalan successfully ‘conveys the straight-faced glee of realizing the straightforward logic of [the film’s] enticing absurdity.’ These two pieces neatly capture the general attitude with which the critical establishment have greeted Old: It has mostly been treated as a serviceable, well-crafted yet ultimately disposable piece of blockbuster entertainment designed for no higher intention than to provide the viewer with a brief respite from the stresses of the past year and a half.
Old does tackle the micro anxieties that have haunted lived experience during the pandemic: the sensation of time slipping away beyond your control, the anxiety that valuable milestones are being missed out on that will never be retrieved, the claustrophobia and the mounting disquiet.”
It’s a shame that so many critics continue to respond to Shyamalan’s work with an attitude of patronizing superiority, for, once you look beyond the implausibility of the central premise, Old reveals itself to be a deeply nuanced, emotionally resonant, structurally experimental and formally rigorous work of art. It’s also a work clearly informed by the collective trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though it doesn’t make any explicit references to contagious diseases, lockdowns, or social distancing. What Old does, instead, is tackle the micro anxieties that have haunted lived experience during the pandemic: the sensation of time slipping away beyond your control, the anxiety that valuable milestones are being missed out on that will never be retrieved, the claustrophobia and the mounting disquiet. The film’s thematic focus on the differing ways in which each individual responds to passing time is established from the outset. The opening act sees museum curator Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and her husband Guy (Gael García Bernal), an actuary, taking their children Trent and Maddox to an opulent resort on an unnamed island. Once there, they receive the VIP treatment – complimentary cocktails, a luxury suite, and 24/7 access to a candy bar. Despite these pleasures, the family find themselves incapable of fully being present, their thoughts primarily occupied by resentments from the past and hopes/fears for the future. Listening to Maddox’s singing voice, Prisca comments that she ‘can’t wait to hear it when [she’s] older’; Trent begrudges the fact that he’s too young to go scuba diving. Before long, serious fractures in the Cappa family’s façade of harmony begin to show: Guy and Prisca have planned the trip as a final vacation for the family, as they intend to inform the children of their plans to separate once they make it back to the city.
Although they are unable to dispel their problems at the resort, the prospect of a true escape seems to arise when the excessively effusive manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) tells the family about a stunning secluded beach surrounded by palisades on a different part of the island. The beach can’t be reached on foot, so a special vehicle is arranged to transport the Cappas, along with another family from the hotel, consisting of short-tempered and erratic doctor Charles (Rufus Sewell); his superficial trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), who suffers from a calcium deficiency; their young daughter Kara (played, at various points in the film, by Kylie Begley, Mikaya Fisher, and Eliza Scanlen); Charles’ mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). The first indication that there is something off with the beach comes when Trent finds the corpse of a young woman floating face-down in the water, immediately stoking division and paranoia amongst the group. This is intensified by the addition of new tourists: first, a stoic rapper of moderate fame who goes by his stage name Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) who claims to have had contact with the deceased the previous night (but cannot remember anything that happened after she waded into the water); and, later, the mild-mannered nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and his epileptic wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird).
The first indications that there is something unnatural about the beach come in the form of a series physiological abnormalities: a cut on Mid-Sized Sedan’s face heals in a matter of seconds, the corpse decomposes within minutes, a tumor within Prisca’s abdomen grows rapidly to a horrifying size. Just as he accomplished in The Happening, Shyamalan crafts a palpable sense of unease by pitting his protagonists against an antagonistic force that can, by nature, not be grasped in its totality because it does not take a corporeal form. The Happening visualized a scenario in which the vast expanse of nature turned against us, tainting the very elements that we rely on to sustain our very existence. Similarly, Old is so effective in creating a sustained sense of dread because its antagonist is time itself; its effects may be witnessed, but it cannot be engaged with as a physical entity with defined contours. Thus, a feeling of overwhelming hopelessness descends over the characters as kids see their parents grow into elderly and feeble bodies, parents watch their offspring grow out of childhood, and they are all forced to confront the inevitability of their encroaching demise.
There are moments of intense, visceral body horror, such as when Chrystal, who has been unable to receive her crucial calcium fix, sees her bones become brittle and misshapen, or when Charles is stabbed with a rusty knife and succumbs to a ghastly infection, but what lingers most powerfully is the sense of melancholy with which Shyamalan infuses material. What weighs down on the characters is the realization that anticipated moments in time are vanishing before their eyes before they even had a chance to be lived, that every hour they spend stuck in that spot is wiping away whole periods of their lives, that every minute they share with loved ones will have to be cherished and appreciated like never before because in the blink of an eye they will have entered a new stage in their physiological development. The film’s most affecting narrative strand concerns the plight of Prisca and Guy. As the day turns into night and escape from the beach seems impossible, the pair stop attempting to resist the flow of time and instead turn their attention to the question of how they will ultimately face their own deaths. As Guy enters old age, his eyesight starts to fail, and he has significant lapses in memory. Resigned to their fate and tired of spending the short time they have left on earth fighting a force they greater than they, Prisca and Guy warm themselves by a fire they’ve built on the sand, Trent and Maddox accompanying them, and watch as the tide furls and unfurls on the shore. Shyamalan films much of this climactic scene through the POV of Guy, using soft focus to transform the faces of his family members into barely recognizable blurs. The emotional gut-punch arrives when it’s revealed that Guy’s memory has faltered to the extent that he can no longer remember when or why they came to the beach, and, looking around at the clan at that moment, simply believes that they have naturally grown old together and forged decades worth of memories. ‘I can’t remember’, Guy says to Prisca, ‘why did we want to leave this beach? It’s so beautiful’. Shyamalan then cuts to a wide shot, framing the family from behind, huddled together, dwarfed against the enormity of the sky hanging over them in the frame and the ocean stretching into the horizon. The life seeps out of Guy’s body and he slumps over as the camera remains fixed on the static wide shot. As much as this sequence expresses the daunting indifference of the elements to the loss of human life, it also emphasizes the beauty of the relationships established by the characters within these circumstances, their willingness to endure, and their capacity to create their own individual systems of value.
Within a studio system that is increasingly consumed by the production of focus-grouped, means-tested, impersonal content, it is refreshing to see a filmmaker still working on a grand scale who so clearly delights in orchestrating potent, carefully-crafted images and remains committed to expressing their own, fully-fledged philosophical worldview.”
Perhaps emboldened by the stripped-back nature of the premise, Old finds Shyamalan – who has never received enough credit for the dexterity of his visual storytelling – at his most formally experimental. The film is composed mostly of lengthy, tracking shots, divorced from the perspective of any single character (unless the use of subjectivity is being used to communicate a fundamental chance in their physiological state, as in Guy’s POV shots described above). With remarkable agility and fluidity, Shyamalan’s camera rotates, zooms, tracks and drifts around the characters, appearing to be at once untethered and carefully choreographed. These figures rarely hold the center of the frame; they are pushed to the edge, drift and out of focus, as if struggling to maintain their presence in the image just as they struggle to remain afloat against the current of time’s passing. The woozy, disorientating motion of the camera can lend an undercurrent of anxiety to even seemingly mundane events, obscuring our sense of time and space and keeping us uncertain as to where the different elements of the scene are situated in relation to each other.
Within a studio system that is increasingly consumed by the production of focus-grouped, means-tested, impersonal content, it is refreshing to see a filmmaker still working on a grand scale who so clearly delights in orchestrating potent, carefully-crafted images and remains committed to expressing their own, fully-fledged philosophical worldview. Old solidifies Shyamalan’s status as one of our great living filmmakers, a true visionary who uses his masterful formal powers to visualize complex and challenging theoretical concepts in truly novel ways.
James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann is forthcoming with Telos Publishing. His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.