Old, review: M Night Shyamalan is back, with a more deranged plot than ever

·4 min read
Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps discover that their beach holiday is far from idyllic - Universal
Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps discover that their beach holiday is far from idyllic - Universal
  • Dir: M Night Shyamalan. 15 cert, 108 mins

It’s tempting to reconsider the whole career of M Night Shyamalan every time he mounts a comeback, but in Old, his Twilight Zone-esque stab at a mind-bending supernatural thriller, there simply isn’t time. Too much is proceeding apace: specifically, the rapid ageing of every character here who finds themselves stranded on a tropical island beach. Even half an hour on these mysterious sands causes all 11 visitors to get one year crinklier; a tumour someone has been hiding triples in size by the minute.

Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Priska (Vicky Krieps) are a troubled couple, on holiday with children aged six and 11, who let the hotel management coax them into a plan for the day, involving a secluded slice of paradise they’re meant to have all to themselves. Two other families show up with the same idea, but before they’ve even set up deckchairs, a stranger’s corpse is found floating in the surf, swimsuits for the children stop fitting properly, and a general atmosphere of hectic bafflement descends. Needless to say, because of some invisible forcefield in the rock passageway through which they entered, no one can leave.

It’s a rare example of adaptation by Shyamalan. He based this conceit on a Swiss graphic novel called Sandcastle (2010), but has comprehensively made the story his own – which is to say, he’s set it up as an amorphous puzzle with a solution only he could devise. The book’s unexplained phenomena won’t quite do, so this nests the premise inside a vaguely scientific framework that’s only revealed late on. Shyamalan isn’t minded to go deep along the way: some filmmakers might have fashioned a poignant disquisition on our inevitable decay from all this, but he just wants things to get weird and creepy, fast.

The pacing is a huge can of worms. How do you keep track of 11 characters separately advancing through half a lifetime, give them meaningful interactions, and have the cast – especially the unenviable leads – look anything other than confused in geriatric make-up? With every trick in the book, essentially. The children venture off-screen for 10 minutes; when Shyamalan brings them back, a whole new trio of actors (Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Eliza Scanlen) have taken over the roles. Those three, proven talents, do creditably at remembering they’re still meant to be kids beneath, particularly Wolff, who commits like crazy to this boy-man and almost gets you caring.

In his low-budget 2015 chiller The Visit, Shyamalan exploited a fear of the elderly with rabid tastelessness, culminating in one of his most outrageous twists to date. Unsurprisingly, we get variations on that theme in this: a prickly doctor called Charles (Rufus Sewell) succumbs to the speediest onset of dementia in film history, and soon runs around stabbing everybody.

If that sounds bad enough, beware the calcium deficiency of his wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), which turns her into a gnarled ghoul like something out of The Descent. (Don’t notch this up as feel-good stuff for anyone with a bone disorder.) The movie can only advance by springing something more ridiculous and/or shocking than whatever the last bombshell was: Psychosis! Pregnancy! Rust poisoning! Seen with a sufficiently inebriated Friday-night crowd, it would be easy enough to respond to these more as hysterical punchlines than plot developments.

Old is daft and not exactly dislikable, but it does make you question what the alleged Shyamalan comeback has really amounted to: a pair of indulgent superhero mash-ups (Split and Glass), the absurdity of his horror-comedy The Visit, and now this, a film with serious emotional chit-chat between a husband and wife who are separately going blind and deaf.

Shyamalan, who has a Hitchcockian fetish for giving himself cameos, appears this time as a possibly-complicit bus driver, who may or may not be the person spying on everything through a telescope from a nearby ridge. As an overseer of these people’s destinies, or torturer-in-chief, it would make sense to give himself this god-like function, but he’s also got a lot to answer for on a basic level – simply as the man in charge of his cast’s fake suffering, his script’s berserk escape-clauses, and a half-twist that’s more like a token shake of a tail-feather.

In cinemas on Friday