The existential threat of aging becomes an immediate danger in Old, the latest Twilight Zone-esque thriller from director M. Night Shyamalan. Bolstered by some strong performances if occasionally sidetracked by unusual narrative decisions, Old nevertheless ranks alongside Split as one of the director’s best films from the past two decades.
We know going into Old that something isn’t right with the island resort at the center of the film, and Shyamalan wastes no time in drawing offbeat suspense in what should otherwise be an idyllic family vacation for parents Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Kreips). The duo are also keeping relationship issues from their two children, 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six-year-old Trent (Nolan River).
On vacation from Philadelphia (Old represents Shyamalan’s first movie not filmed in his Pennsylvania hometown), the family is quickly recommended travel to a ‘secret’ beach by their resort’s vaguely sinister manager, played by Gustaf Hammarsten.
Within moments of the family’s arrival on the beach alongside doctor Charles (Rufus Sewell), his wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), and mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), a dead body washes upon the shores. Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), the only other guest on the beach, isn’t saying much, and whenever someone tries to escape the beach through a narrow passageway in a rock formation, they black out and end up back where they started.
Along with the other strange goings-on, Old’s central conceit, given away by its title, is soon revealed: time passes by differently on the beach the characters find themselves trapped on, and they are rapidly aging. By the time Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and Jarin (Ken Leung) show up on the beach, the young kids have already become teenagers.
Old works just fine as a straightforward thriller, with the characters quickly coming to grips with the reality of their situation and devising plans for getting out of it, including swimming into the ocean or climbing over the rocks. More interesting, perhaps, is how they deal with each other and the incredible situation they find themselves in.
But the most ingenious aspect of Old is how it operates as a sly parable for the terrifying notion of aging. Conditions that would normally take years to develop – a growing tumor, the onset of Parkinson’s, the loss of hearing or sight – now fly by in minutes. The notion of disease as an abstract threat becomes an immediate and pressing concern in Old, in an inventive and genuinely frightening manner.
Shyamalan has an unfortunate knack for hanging his actors out to dry, capturing a kind of perplexed awkwardness in the face of an incredible situation. No one was more subject to this than Mark Walhberg in The Happening, and while Bernal and Krieps are the occasional victims of Shymalan’s style in Old, they also share some surprisingly tender and affecting scenes together toward the end of the movie.
But the supporting cat really helps sell Old’s central conceit. Sewell, tasked with playing both a mild racist and violent threat when his character’s Parkinson’s sets in, gives a surprisingly layered performance that adds an unexpected layer of emotional weight.
Best of all here are the young performers, most notably Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff and Eliza Scanlen — all playing characters who are young children thrust into the bodies of teenagers. Puberty has passed them by in a fleeting instant, giving them no time to adapt to their new bodies; McKenzie is especially empathetic as the 16-year-old Maddox, who is actually 11 but the oldest of the children and their default protector.
Francesca Eastwood, daughter of Clint, is striking in a few scenes as the hotel’s ominous greeter. Shyamalan himself shows up in a brief role as a hotel chauffeur.
Though the location of the seaside resort is not named, Old was filmed in the Dominican Republic, and cinematography by Mike Gioulakis (It Follows, Glass) beautifully captures the locale’s natural phenomena including towering beachside cliffs and underwater coral formations.
Old is fully committed to its central premise and not reliant on a third-act twist; what serves as an explanation towards the finale is generally underwhelming, but not enough to mar the solid thriller that has preceded it. Shyamalan’s latest film is both an engaging piece of science fiction and a thought-provoking parable about the fleeting nature of life.