For the past two decades, M. Night Shyamalan has steadily put out a new film almost every other year, with most of his defining work being psychological thrillers like Signs and Split. After spending the last several years working on films in his acclaimed Eastrail 177 trilogy, Shyamalan has returned with a new supernatural thriller, Old, and it’s arguably his best film in years.
Like most of Shyamalan’s work, Old starts with a simple premise. Four groups of people travel to a tropical resort for a weekend getaway, and are directed to a private beach off the coast. Upon arriving, they quickly discover that not only are they unable to leave the beach, but time passes much faster, as their kids age by years in just a manner of hours.
This minimalist setup turns a day on the beach into a ticking time bomb of suspense and drama as the film’s ten characters struggle to cope with their rapidly changing environment while their fuse quickly runs out. Despite such a simple and almost gimmicky hook, Shyamalan is able to work wonders with the idea, using its malleability to shape a myriad of unique plot beats and scenes that continually one-up themselves.
The world of Old is airtight and ironclad, with every bit of scientific mumbo-jumbo acting to perfectly seal the film’s rules into place. It feels engineered to be plot hole-proof, with every possible leap of logic being explained and validated by Shyamalan’s ruthlessly efficient screenplay. This is the first of Shyamalan’s films since 2013’s After Earth that isn’t an original story of his, as the plot was adapted from the 2013 Swiss graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. Shyamalan’s extremely inventive and expressive visual style makes Old feel very much like the piece of sequential art it was derived from.
Cinematographer Michael Gioulakis’ camerawork is a perfectly-executed ballet of panoramic shots as the camera effortlessly glides between characters and scenes, with the beautiful 35mm cinematography causing the tropical scenery to pop off the screen with rich color and depth. Shyamalan’s self-admitted Australian New Wave inspirations are palpable, with the rocky outcroppings and hills surrounding the beach feeling comparable to the mystical and terrifying depictions of the Australian bush seen in films like Walkabout or Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Breathtaking direction aside, Old is yet another showcase of Shyamalan’s proficiency at crafting wonderfully balanced, tight and well-paced thrillers. Once you get past the slow, albeit short, opening, Old is a relentless rollercoaster ride that doesn’t let up a single time throughout its 108-minute runtime. From front-to-back the narrative is stitched together elegantly like a sprawling tapestry, structured with precision and restraint. Shyamalan keeps his cards close to his chest, strategically placing them on the table like a casino dealer, so that each and every trick is pulled off to the greatest effect possible. Despite not being a murder-mystery, Old feels akin to a classic whodunit, playing out like a chess game as each piece is slowly moved into place. These characters are merely pawns in Shyamalan’s game, and each of them is juggled and balanced delicately throughout the entirety of the film.
This is not a surface-level thriller and the depth seen in each character is evident of that. Each is rounded out with their own personal history and occupation, and the connections between family members allow for an additional layer of emotional drama to steep in the background. Outside of two genuinely dismal performances by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie, the cast excels, with reputed actors Gael García Bernal and Rufus Sewell providing standout performances.
Early on, it’s revealed that the inhabitants of the beach are all afflicted with their own illness or disorder. On one level, this acts as yet another addition to the many empathetic portraits of disability and individualism in Shyamalan’s filmography. Yet when combined with the additional time-bending sleight of hand, the rapidly decelerating condition of the film’s characters allows for a truly terrifying and thrilling experience. Make no mistake: Old is not a horror film, but it is ultimately about the scariest plight of all—getting older. These characters, who once felt young not even an hour ago, now feel older and weathered, with the gauntness and age of their visages settling in as time passes. They lose shreds of their senses and of their sensibility and it’s all tied together marvelously by the moving and pitch-perfect performances by most of the cast.
Old is a fantastic film, one that should redeem Shyamalan from even the most ardent of his critics, and is perfectly representative of his strengths as a director. It’s yet another elegant step in his return to small, enigmatic thrillers after his string of blockbuster flops like The Last Airbender and After Earth. There are so many memorable scenes in Old and every time I think about the film it becomes even better. I’ve already seen it twice in theaters, and it’s sure to make its mark as one of the best films of the year.