A new film by filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who was once celebrated as a “directing prodigy,” is always like reaching into a surprise bag. Same with OLD, a melancholic memoir about growing older. We reveal in our review whether the director, who is often reduced to his existence as a twistrider, is convincing this time or is wrong.
OT: Old (USA 2021)
It was actually supposed to be a paradisiacal family vacation. But when parents Guy and Prisca (Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps) and their two children Trent and Maddox want to relax on a deserted beach on the recommendation of the hotel manager, they fall under the spell of a shocking phenomenon: they grow old very quickly. In just a few minutes they age for several years. And with them also the numerous other visitors to this secluded place. While madness slowly spreads within the group until no one dares to trust anyone else, a few of them try to get to the bottom of the secret. To do this, they first have to find out why they were chosen. Coincidence? Fate? Over time, the prisoners recognize similarities in their life stories. But the origin of all this is much more shocking than you could imagine…
Director and screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan is a grab bag in the truest sense of the word. As a somewhat experienced film fan, you actually think you know roughly what to expect when you buy a cinema ticket for a film by the Indian filmmaker. He became known through his 1990s cult film “The Sixth Sense,” with which he took the directorial gimmick of the “twist” – an unforeseen plot twist – to a new level. Since then, the psychodrama in which Haley Joel Osment, aka Cole Bruce Willis, once revealed visions of dead people, has been considered the epitome of narrative surprise. For Shymalan it’s both a blessing and a curse. The reason: All of his next films – from “Unbreakable” to “Signs” to “The Visit” – often had to accept a reduction in reception to their surprise effect. Anyone who goes to a Shyamalan film expects a spectacular twist at the end – even if it’s just that one film suddenly turns out to be the sequel to another (keyword: “Split”). Shymalan certainly fueled this type of approach himself with films like “The Village” (and clearly worked off the writing press in “The Girl from the Water”), but what is often overlooked is the entertainment value and – above all – the subtexts of the stories told by Shyamalan. “The Sixth Sense” was essentially an examination of death, “Signs” was a treatise on the fear of strangers and “Glass” – however unsuccessful it may have been – was an alternative to modern superhero cinema. So what is “old”?
Guy (Gael García Bernal) and his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps) suspect that something is wrong on this beach…
First of all, from this initial description of the “M. Night Shyamalan mystery,” “Old” is thoroughly a film that one would hardly expect to see made by anyone else. Nowadays, only a few filmmakers dare to “just do it” in their films without having their approach dictated by a major film studio. And what happens when Shymalan has to restrict himself creatively is the best example of this, for example, in the miserably failed Will Smith vehicle “After Earth”. In “Old” the auteur filmmaker can finally film freely again; At least under the circumstances. His survival horror drama is loosely based on Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeter’s graphic novel “Sandcastle,” which Shymalan once received as a gift from his daughters and is said to have significantly inspired his most recent work. Even though he changed some details, such as the constellation of characters, to transfer them to the screen, he still focuses on similar themes: fears, death and, above all, the fear of getting older, which Shymalan himself often overcomes in view of his aging parents . Nevertheless, “Old” starts off easy. We get to know the family at the center of the story, we realize early on that there are big problems behind the harmonious facade and also that within this four-member community there has long been general knowledge about their broken state. M. Night Shymalan – as ironic as this may sound in the context of his work – plays with open cards right from the start. The same applies to the drawing of all other character groups that are added as the plot progresses. Even if he sometimes uses dialogues that serve the sole purpose of explaining. Well then: The spoken word was never the greatest strength of Shyamalan’s work.
“M. Night Shymalan – as ironic as this may sound in the context of his work – plays with open cards right from the start.”
But it’s not just the facade of the protagonist’s family that crumbles from the start, the holiday destination also reveals numerous barbs. As azure as the sea beckons, as seductively as the cocktails and candy bars promise tourists enjoyment, images such as the sudden grand mal seizure of epilepsy patient Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), which from a medical point of view is completely unrealistic, or the The supposed idyll is spoiled by the disgruntled looks of other guests. Shyamalan’s cameraman Mike Gioulakis (the fact that he also photographed Jordan Peele’s “We” is visible in many moments) supports this subversively building unease by often filming a scene several times in order to suggest that something is changing in a short space of time or there is much more to discover than was suggested in the first pan. A mechanism that Gioulakis sometimes overuses, but it turns out to be far more pleasant than the use of classic jump scares to force the audience into a constant state of attention. Although “Old” can even be roughly assigned to the genre of horror cinema – roughly comparable to the early films of Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), who have always played with genre motifs without exclusively serving them – M. Night Shymalan takes his usual cautious approach in order to lull his audience into uncertainty. It soon becomes clear that it is not the premise itself that is the horror scenario, but everything that it stands for. Because of course it is shocking at first glance when a child who is just a few years old has the face of a teenager a few seconds later. However, if you look at the story through the eyes of a filmmaker concerned about his parents’ physical health, one thing can be drawn from this: it is not aging that is shocking, but the thought that it cannot be stopped. And so “Old” sees itself primarily as a dramatic race against time, embedded in an experimental setup reminiscent of “Lord of the Flies” about what happens when several strangers are suddenly in an unobserved place and are no longer from here can get away.
Charles (Rufus Sewell) realizes his physical decline.
The trailer sometimes sells “Old” as a horror film. From a marketing perspective, this makes sense – after all, Shyamalan’s other films have already been incorrectly classified as horror cinema, although, with the exception of “The Visit”, they are by no means only located in this genre. Although philosophical questions about time, the necessity of aging, the meaning of illness and the (sometimes more, sometimes less profound) examination of the importance of family ties clearly dominate “Old”, the film is predominantly a drama for large parts again and again graphic scenes that are shocking simply because of their idea. In one scene, for example, memories of a now legendary sequence from Luca Guadagnino’s reinterpretation of the horror classic “Suspiria” are awakened (imagine several broken bones healing in a matter of seconds without medical care – everything doesn’t grow together as it should!) , in another, the time-lapse sequence of a pregnancy followed by a birth, or a poisoning that takes place in no time at all are shocking. However, it always sends a chill down your spine when people realize over and over again how little time they have left, according to their calculations, as their body deteriorates – sometimes only minimally. The very calculations, considerations of the events taking place here, the efforts to find solutions and the repeated, miserable failures here and there once again fall victim to Shyamalan’s below-average writing skills – but also to the USA dubbing! This looks like it was knitted with a needle that was too hot for several reasons. On the one hand, because the sound quality sounds very tinny* and does not fit homogeneously into the rest of the soundscape, and on the other hand, because the flat translations further boycott the subtlety that is already only present to a limited extent. For example, if in a scene two people are simply having an intimate conversation, the USA soundtrack shows the two of them on the verge of a loud argument. A synchro couldn’t distort the intention of the original more.
“Although philosophical questions about time, the necessity of aging, the meaning of illness and the examination of the importance of family ties clearly dominate “Old”, meaning that the film is predominantly a drama for the most part, there are always graphic scenes that are shocking by the very idea.”
Among the actors, the focus is clearly on Vicky Krieps (“The Silk Thread”) and Gael Garcia Bernal (“Salt and Fire”)) as a dysfunctional married couple. How the two of them desperately want to keep their differences a secret from the children, but ultimately play with open cards and ultimately grow together again due to the situation itself, corresponds to common disaster film motifs, but is presented by the two of them so convincingly that it is still thrilling. The youth actors of her offspring Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie, “Jojo Rabbit”) and Trent (Alex Wolff, “Hereditary”) meanwhile manages to transfer the child actors’ mannerisms one-to-one to their performance. The casting of several actors for different age groups was also successful. “Mad Max: Fury Road” star Abbey Lee unfortunately has to play the thankless role of the hysterical fitness fanatic, who occasionally scratches the caricature badly (here again, the reference is made to the fact that the USA dubbing could distort this impression). The rest of the ensemble acts routinely and completely in the spirit of the characters embodied here. And although some of them have dropped a mask over the course of a very short period of time that they perhaps didn’t even know they were wearing until then, the overall constellation here still grows on you. Just like M. Night Shyamalan, who in a guest appearance secures the role of the one who sends the guests to their doom. This man knows exactly what kind of films he makes…
Conclusion: The new Shyamalan is a real challenge. Twist yes, but with a completely different purpose than usual. A film that pursues its goal straight and uncompromisingly, but also with restraint – and is, at its core, quite sad. There are Lord of the Flies vibes and some decent bits of body horror on top.
“Old” can be seen in USA cinemas from July 29, 2021.
*The fact that the tinny sound was not a problem with the Hamburg press screening cinema, but with the production itself, was subsequently shown by the fact that the sound also sounded like that in other cinemas!