Heal All Wounds: M. Night Shyamalan's "Old"
This piece contains spoilers.
A master of visual storytelling whose ability to build a strong enough foundation to hold up his ideas has been in question almost his entire career, M. Night Shyamalan and his new film Old may not mitigate that particular strand of criticism but it does more than enough in affirming his talent as of one Hollywood’s most gifted formalists still making personal movies today. That latter point is why there’s something bittersweet about returning to cinemas, having recently opened their doors which were shuttered amidst COVID-19, for the director’s latest. Shyamalan himself greets audiences with a recorded video message that plays ahead of the film. It’s the kind of gesture characteristic of his pursuit of being more than just the man behind the movie camera, but something of an iconic showman, a household name à la Hitchcock. Indeed it’s a film that makes such full (even deliberately overflowing) use of its wide frame and dazzling camera movement that it couldn’t be more ideal for reacquainting oneself with the big screen experience—but the bitter on the flipside of the sweet is that we can’t be sure we’ll be able to continue enjoying movies on this scale that feel like the product of such a singularly conceived vision. In this way, and in spite of its own sheer inventiveness, Old really does suit its title and may be part of something soon to be distinctly past. But Shyamalan wants you think about the here and now—and to meet him there.
Its high concept plot couldn’t be easier to summarize: a family of four (Gael García Bernal plays Guy, the father, Vicky Krieps plays Prisca, the mother, Thomasin McKenzie plays Maddox, the daughter, for the most part, ditto with Alex Wolff as Trent, the son) on vacation arrive at a resort that points them in direction of a unique beach off the beaten path (“a once in a lifetime experience” suggests the conspicuous manager). However, once they dig their toes in the sand alongside a handful of other tourists, it quickly becomes clear that something isn’t quite right. Their young children are bursting out of their swimsuits (almost comically so for Maddox but fortunately mom has a spare swimsuit on hand, one of the throwaway conveniences that upend the otherwise sly Shyamalan), a woman turns up dead, and the one elderly person among them passes away almost immediately. It takes the characters precious time before they deduce the particulars of their predicament. Everyone is aging at a rapid rate. Nearly a lifetime will pass in the course of a day. All efforts to exit the beach are mysteriously warded by mysterious forces. Buñuelian though it may sound, and although Shyamalan is more critical of the traits of his central characters than usual, Old is a movie of affirmations, of the immanent and inherent meaning and value of life at large and the lives of individuals.
On the heels of Split and Glass, the surprise second and third entries in the Eastrail 177 trilogy, Old is more in line with the likes of more thriller-forward entries in his oeuvre like The Visit and The Happening, more interested in mining the suspense of its premise than in building ambitious mythologies. It also takes a turn away from a permeating obsession with traumas (aside from the trauma occurring to the characters happening before our very eyes), and most notable of all with a belief in the beyond. Faith here is not something to be placed in the transcendent but instead in the immanent—the ever present but seemingly passing moment that is, after all, all that we know. Of course, faith in Shyamalan’s films has always been a metaphor for just that, albeit dressed up in spirituality, revelations of the theretofore unknown, in that which outreaches our understanding. Storytelling and moviemaking are gestures of faith in themselves for Shyamalan that have the power to uncover what’s in plain sight. Life itself is enough. It’s everything, in fact. Meaning is inherent in all existence. Which is precisely what makes the rapidly progressing time on the beach such an upsetting, even overwhelming, idea. No single happening in Old is as unnerving as this feeling that underscores the film from front to back.
Cruelly, that which is affirmed becomes too transient to hold onto. Days pass in seconds, years in hours. Articulating this blink-and-you-miss-it sensory overload is Shyamalan’s roaming, panning, pulsing, zooming, circling, swivelling, swerving camera that at all times is revealing something to us while withholding what’s out of frame. As the camera tracks to one end of the beach to show us something, by the time it tracks back to the other end, more tumult has taken place. More time has passed. And soon more lives are lost. It’s a constant sleight of hand where the formal approach is always actualizing the film’s narrative conceit. At the peak of his formidable powers, Shyamalan uses every trick in the book and even invents a few new ones. Dolly zooms are used to brilliant ends, every nook and cranny of the frame is utilized—Old makes particular use of edges, with unexpected points of focus and detail in the very corners of the frame. Split diopters, unnerving close-ups, trippy POVs, virtuoso uses of racking focus, physical and simulated movement through space—keeping track of the sheer density and diversity of film grammar here is its own daunting task and each of these choices executes its desired effect.
Shyamalan creates an impressively disorienting yet legible visual experience that is constantly finding ways to express ideas and sensations. In this sense, it’s not unlike his other work but it’s the dizzying and breakneck way it’s enacted that has an altogether different resonance. Like the characters, we are unable to catch our bearings, to freeze the moment at our fingertips, to just be still and live. Everything is rendered ellipses, not just that which escapes our purview, but even what we can see is so transient—change is too quick, too constant, and too discreet for us to keep up—even what’s in the frame feels as if it is out of frame. Punctuating its stylistic originality are classic Shyamalan conceptions: a long take when the family enters their hotel room tracks laterally as the shot follows the kids’ excited exploration of the space and the father’s playfulness while foregrounding the mother’s tenuousness and unease, both directly in front of the camera and eventually in a glass reflection, or, later, an ambitious scene wherein a tumor is removed from Prisca, at one point the camera observes the action from the point of view of the ocean in wide shot as lapping waves obscure her fate (a use of foreground that recalls the positioning of the last victim of Eastrail 177 in Unbreakable as Bruce Willis discovers he is its only survivor).
Shyamalan’s control of the form is unquestionable but where his critics have a field day is in the realm of writing. It is true that his ability to show can be undermined by his tendency to tell (something I’ve considered before but think is ultimately dwarfed by his virtues) and Old is guilty on this charge. On the other hand, the premise of the film permits more leeway for such things. Characters expositing what’s happening around them may come off a little clunky but it’s hard to imagine strangers on a magic beach that’s killing them softly to communicate otherwise. Some things are verbalized too much and some points are hammered home in dialogue when they needn’t be, but there’s also something so purposefully direct and straightforward to Shyamalan’s writing here that it comes off differently. He’s not trying to put one over on us or anyone. He’s not providing messages to be decoded (even if a character in the film is) so much as he just wants us to open up our eyes.
His actors here all have challenging assignments. No one more so than McKenzie and Wolff whose characters start the day as an 11 and 6 year old and end up occupying fully developed bodies. Both actors are tremendous at playing somewhere between the actual ages of their characters and the state of their rapid maturation. Both of their respective passages through puberty are tender and awkward with Shyamalan highlighting their innate humanity. “I’m not as scared of what’s happening to us,” says one young character as she becomes acquainted with the intoxicating influence of sexual passion and affection. Their parents start off the film as a couple on the outs but time has a way of melting icy hearts and of clarifying what really matters—what’s genius about Old is how it takes obvious notions like these and realizes them so convincingly and with such sincere emotion, that you’d swear you were just discovering how important the people in our lives are and just how trivial are the things we let wedge us apart. It’s the prevailing Shyamalan obsession of familial reconciliation that stands above all else. But it’s not all he’s up to here.
The token twist that takes the film in a jarring tonal direction appears to be at odds with the purity of the parable at its core. The beach is a testing ground for big pharma to develop new medicines on deceptively solicited people with various illnesses and conditions, a horrific case of moral relativism run amuck in the name of corporate profit. The strangest detail here is how Shyamalan himself, in one of the most extensive and memorable of his cameos, is in fact the man behind the movie camera after all—a henchman perched on the cliffside observing and recording “data”, reporting back on the fates of the subjects. It’s an unexpected layer of late game reflexivity that clashes with Old’s bighearted intentions. The affective incommensurability of the final section of the film is not itself uninteresting and complicates what comes before it to an extent no other Shyamalan ending has previously.
As, for lack of a better word, spiritually (which, in Shyamalan, is synonymous with aesthetically) at odds it seems, it does makes sense that in a film that prizes above all else the value and meaning of individual life, the director finds a target similar to that of Glass wherein capitalist powers use instruments of control to make the population be what they need them to be (something akin to Nigel Thrift’s concept of our “political economy of propensity”). On the beach, the characters who at first can’t stop yacking about their occupations eventually forget who they thought they were and remember that they’re singular human beings, lovers, parents, siblings. We’re taught otherwise by a corporatist society that renders us a breeding ground for products and its according ideology. Like in Glass, the heroes of Old puncture holes in these oppressive narratives that convince us we’re less than we are, that life in itself isn’t already what we need, that time is money. As with all Shyamalan films, whether they draw on the affective power of religion, the supernatural, myth, or just of storytelling, the goal is to dissolve the murk that keeps us from recognizing that we are who we are meant to be and each day is the most important we’ve yet lived. And if we’re really lucky, tomorrow comes next.