Old review: M. Night Shyamalan finds clunky thrills in his time-bending mystery
There's a great, spooky premise at the center of M. Night Shyamalan's latest — a sort of Benjamin Un-Buttoning, on the beach — and Old comes close to seeing its metaphysical mystery through. In the end, though, it settles for something more like supernatural camp, with telegraphed twists and jump scares.
Museum curator Prisca (Phantom Thread's Vicky Krieps) and her insurance-actuary husband, Guy (Gael García Bernal), have come to an unspecified tropical island to unwind with their two young children at the kind of family resort where the rooms look like luxe open-plan condos and the group activities (surf lessons, sunset volleyball) are listed on a jaunty whiteboard in the lobby. "This is much better than Cancún," Prisca assures 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and tween Maddox (Alexa Swinton); she doesn't tell them that she and Guy are having serious marital issues, though they're old enough to sense that something's up.
At least everyone seems happy to spend the day at a remote beach that the hotel's unctuous manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) promises them is so secluded that only a lucky few get to go; he'll gladly have his staff take care of the transportation and a picnic lunch. But why does he insist on sending them with so many baskets of food? He's right at least about the spot: It looks like a Corona commercial dream. And there's another little girl for the kids to play with, the daughter of a snobbish surgeon named Charles (Rufus Sewell) and his lithe trophy wife Chrystal (model-actress Abby Lee).
There's another couple there too, a nurse called Jarin (Lost's Ken Leung, who should know a little bit about bad islands) and therapist Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) — and randomly, a well-known rapper who goes by the name Mid-Size Sedan (Aaron Pierre). Maddox is thrilled just to be in Sedan's presence, but it doesn't take long till things begin to go extremely, inexplicably wrong. There's a shape that looks distinctly corpse-like in the waves, and a strange incident with Charles' mother; while the adults run around attempting to set things right, the kids start looking… taller.
This is all setup for what anyone who's seen the trailer (or read a synopsis of Sandcastle, the Swiss graphic novel the story is based on) will suspect is coming: This beach ain't right. And once he has his players in one isolated place, Shyamalan obligingly begins to turn the screw. But he can't seem to help dragging out his big reveals with deliberately obscured camera angles, and dropping clues like Looney Tunes anvils. (When Trent makes a friend on his first day at the resort who shows him how to communicate through a sort of wingdings-font secret code, the writer-director might as well be slapping a neon Post-it on the screen that says "JUST WAIT FOR MY THIRD ACT REVEAL.")
Those are perhaps the biggest hazards of a Shyamalan project; when he is good, he is very very good, and when he is bad, he is corny. The cast, particularly Kreps and Bernal — and later in the film, Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff, and Little Women's Eliza Scanlen — works hard to find the human stakes within their Twilight Zone nightmare, and the ideas the script floats about the relativity of time and character-as-destiny would be intriguing even if it only followed one of them.
Instead, it attempts to cram them all in — backstories and side plots, sudden epiphanies and grotesque demises — and then add a few more before wending on to its final grand reveal. By tying every last thread in a tidy schematic knot instead of leaning into the mystery, though, the climax becomes a flat certainty, making what should be the movie's most satisfying, Shyamalan-y flourish feel more like old news. Grade: C+