In Review: Old (2021), directed by M Night Shyamalan

Review by Tim Robins

Old, the new movie from director-writer M Night Shyamalan, is an entertaining oddity that explores existential fears arising from our all too brief lives, until it doesn’t – and instead, becomes a Michael Crichton techno thriller.

Old (2021) - Poster

Old is based on the 2010 graphic novel Château de sable, written by Pierre Oscar Lévy and drawn by Frederik Peeters, published in English as Sandcastle by SelfMadeHero earlier this year, translated by Nora Mahony. The graphic novel tells the story of a group of people who find themselves trapped on a beach where time is accelerating; parents watch their children age into puberty while the parents themselves grow old and die. Something of a character study and a mystery, the story dramatises the problems that confront us by simply being alive. These include the existential givens of our existence: meaninglessness, isolation, death and freedom.

Shyamalan was given Sandcastle by his daughter for Fathers’ Day. The director said that the book gave him “the opportunity to work through a lot of anxieties I had around death and aging, and things like my parents getting older”.

The story also contains motifs that populate Shyamalan’s other works, notably a group of people facing life-threatening adversity in isolated situations, and families and individuals caught up in terrifying circumstances largely beyond their control. He has certainly made Sandcastle his own, expanding the story by introducing a framing motivation for the events leading to changes to the body of the story. As the film progresses, the holiday makers find that most of them have different life-threatening illnesses.

Old (2021)

The film opens with Married Couple Guy (Gael Garcia Bemal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) traveling to a luxury tropical resort with their young children three-year-old Trent (Alex Wolff, Emun Elliot) and 11-year-old Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie, Embeth Davidtz). While there, the children befriend the young nephew of the resort’s owner. The child (played by Kailen Jude) becomes anxious when the family are offered an “exclusive” trip to a secluded beach, our first hint that all is not what it seems. On the way, in a vehicle driven by Shyamalan in a Hitchcockian cameo chauffeuring the cast to their fate (ho, ho), to the family’s surprise, other tourists are picked up along the way. These include surgeon Charles (Rufus Sewell), his wife Crystal (Abbey Lee), their young daughter Kara. and Charles’ mother Agnes; and married couple Jarin (Ken Lueng) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird).

Worse still, the supposedly exclusive beach is already occupied (by a rapper, the ludicrously named Mid-Size Sedan played by Aaron Pierre).

The cast is fine, particularly Sewell who becomes increasingly violent as his cognitive abilities degenerate over time. Shyamalan is good with children and family interactions, and the child performers are convincing whether playing in the car or freezing with fear as their parents argue in the next room. If Old has a thematic arc, it is the way people as they grow occupy a different relationship to time. Children are often denied the time of childhood by adults continually asking “what do you want to be when you grow up?”. The script nicely captures this. Only with old age, comes a focus on the present moment, the ‘here and now’.

Old (2021)

There’s often a schematic feel to Shyamalan’s scripts to the point that dialogue becomes perfunctory, to say the least. Not since George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels have performers dead-panned so much terrible dialogue. Old is no exception. Characters talk at each other, rather than with each other. The script has a declarative quality, in which every emotional moment is “on-the-nose”. This is obviously deliberate, although the reasons for this choice escapes me. And such dialogue is why Shyamalan’s films walk a tightrope between the disturbingly profound and the unintentionally hilarious. His ideas can also be incredibly trite. We can do without yet another film associating schizophrenia with violence.

Shyamalan’s direction is also odd. YouTube critic Chris Stuckmann pointed to a bizarre shot in The Happening in which the two lead performers are shoved almost off screen while an out-of-focus hedge in the background takes centre frame. I wondered if Shyamalan had mistaken ‘blurry’ for ‘looming’. But Old doubles down on this, with frames focussing on bits otherwise off-screen, the performers poking into shot while the ominous background remains blurred. It’s as if the director was aiming for an impossible depth of field. This may, of course, aim to help indicate the passage of time – we are never sure how much the characters have aged before the roving camera and choppy editing fully returns to them.

Old (2021)
Old (2021)

Visually, the beach itself, and particularly the cliffs that border it are fantastic. Old is almost entirely shot in Dominican Republic’s Playa El Valle, which looks absolutely stunning. Its crimson rock formations that bring an eerie and, at times, menacing beauty to the scenes as if they are made of petrified blood clots.

Shyamalan uses the location to pull off some great moments of horror. We see through the eyes of a character with blurred vision as he tries to see a killer who is crawling towards him across the sand like a demented crab; another character keeps breaking their bones which heal so rapidly that their body is soon grotesquely contorted. And Old is the first time that I’ve seen a person die of rust poisoning. And we get to see what it is like to die from rust!

At other times, the film plays like a reality show or a LARP murder mystery: Who will live? Who will die? Who is the killer? And, most importantly, who will shag who?

Old doesn’t really end with a twist but rather a revelation, bringing with it a quasi-explanation of what the heck is going on. This is entirely Shyamalan’s invention. It isn’t hugely interesting, and the new conflict is resolved too easily, although it has all been meticulously foreshadowed.

I’m sure Old would have been a better movie by sticking to the time on the beach itself. The scenario there continued to haunt me after I left the cinema and does, as the director has suggested, resonate with our current often socially isolated lives.

Tim Robins

Old is currently screening in UK cinemas | Official UK web site

Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters is available from all good bookshops | ISBN 978-1906838386 | Buy it from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters

Pierre Oscar Lévy is an accomplished documentary filmmaker whose work includes a series on the Chauvet cave, Premier ConvoiGeorges Perec – Un parmi eux and Je sais que j’ai tort mais demandez à mes copains, ils vous diront la même chose (Short Film Palme d’Or, 1983). After meeting on an adaptation project for Blue Pills, Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters collaborated on the graphic novel Sandcastle.

Frederik Peeters is an award-winning Swiss comic book artist best known for his autobiographical graphic novel Blue Pills. He has received five nominations in the Best Book category at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. In 2013, he won the Best Series prize at the same event for the first two volumes of his science fiction series Aama. Peeters is also the author of PachydermeSandcastle (with Pierre-Oscar Lévy) and The Smell of Starving Boys

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