Is it better to have an incompetent storyteller with bold ideas or a competent one with none at all? If nothing else, writer-director M. Night Shyalmalan is a purveyor of unique ideas; from killer trees, cults, and ghosts that think they’re alive; his reputation holds a sense of gravitas. If Hollywood had a relationship status with its directors, Shyamalan’s to Hollywood would be something like: “It’s complicated.”. One could imagine the sheer number of esoteric script outlines that have been pitched to studios by this man, or even the stacks of proof-of-concept stories that are strewn across his workspace. He’s a man with a long history of success and failure; with his films often flipping between tantalising and engaging to tasteless and enraging. He’s the king of the plot twist, the master of muted dialogue, and above all, a damn interesting creative. With all that said, you may be pleased to hear Old does not break this long-standing tradition – on the contrary, it exemplifies it.
Old features every Shyalmalan gimmick you could possibly wish for; a bizarre plot-point that is both intriguing and ridiculous, dialogue that almost destroys the fabric of the entire film, a shoehorned cameo by the man himself, and a twist ending that you were fully expecting because, well, this is M. Night Shyamalan. Old revisits Shyalmalan’s admirable attempts at diving into themes that are bolder than his own ideas, a classic example of this can be seen in The Happening (2008) where Shyalmalan makes a valiant attempt at touching on environmentalism. Old aims to strike a larger target, with life itself being the “theme” of choice. How does he achieve this? Well, it’s not too hard when the setup of your story involves a slew of character’s quite literally experiencing life in fast-forward.
Old follows a gaggle of characters, both couples and families entering a hidden beach recommended to them by the resort they were all residing in – upon arrival they begin to discover they are rapidly aging. With this premise in hand Shyamalan is able to create a story that moves at a consistent pace, with a new obstacle arising at every moment. Old can best be described as a needlessly complicated version of Click (2006), where much of the runtime is spent with characters trying to understand the insane situation they’re in, and less time spent truly delving into the “life in a bottle” aspect that this film could’ve drawn most of its strengths from. Again, Shyamalan tends to falter due to his innate desire in wanting to surprise his audience rather than connect with them on a deeper level. Did Old show potential for an emotionally charged story? Yes. Did it succeed? No.
It also wouldn’t be a Shyamalan film without dialogue that doesn’t quite stick. Old displays an impressive degree of awkward dialogue; it’s as though Shyamalan has returned to his true form. Characters speak, then pause, then stare, and then speak again – all beautifully out of sync. Now, almost none of this is the fault of the actors on-screen, as they do what any actor in a Shyamalan flick does, their best. It’s perhaps for the best that nobody in this film takes centre stage, there is no spotlight, and nobody in particular shines. The structure of this film simply does not allow for it. For a film that’s confined on a beach, this film is potently messy.
The visual aesthetic of Old is tough to describe and better yet, is there even one? We are served with some inspired shots such as a POV angle to reveal that a different cast member is now playing that character or long-take shots that flow along the beach side capturing the reactions of the characters as they witness what’s happening. However, the camera sometimes forgets that it is a visual storyteller as it sometimes holds its shots on something that has little to no relevance to the story or characters. There is a certain simplicity to the shot composition and a certain calmness to the camera movement in majority of the scenes but the camera-work certainly adds that extra level of intensity when required using a blurred filter or the shaky-cam effect.
The aging effects are subtle, and convincing which are mostly a result of some extremely impressive makeup. It feels like there are nuanced changes in the characters’ physical characteristics as each scene goes on creating an unsettling atmosphere. While Trevor Gureckis delivers an uninspiring and forgettable score, the one thing he does manage to do well is capture tension. There are certain scenes where he uses loud quick beat musical pieces or screeching sounds that enhances the tension the characters go through or witness.
It’s difficult to discern whether M. Night Shyamalan’s off-kilter style keeps his material feeling fresh-faced and young or old and dilapidated – this writer-director has been flip-flopping between success and travesty for the better part of two decades, making his flavour of film-making not unlike a blind taste test. There’s no doubt that the lens in which this creative views his world and executes his storytelling is truly a warped and imperfect one, and I must say, it’s simply hard not to appreciate that. No matter how you feel about him, Shyamalan’s at least not boring.