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In Defence of M. Night Shyamalan’s OLD: Why It Ranks Amongst His Scariest Films

“Stop wishing away this moment.”

Still from Old (2021) dir. M Night Shyamalan.

There’s never a single moment where you’re not ageing. You’re ageing, not just by a year, a month, a week, or a day. You’re ageing by mere hours, minutes, and seconds. Growing old is an inevitable part of life, but one of its horrors lies in how our bodies can grow weak and decompose over time. Some of us still have our youth, but not forever. Some of us are old and fragile, and since time is never kind to our circumstances, it turns us further into frail, physical shells of what we used to be. Before you know it, a decade-long chapter in your life can end quickly, and you’ve reached another stage in your life that you thought would begin later. 

In the moments we have, the dreams we can achieve, the families we love, and the windows of opportunities we can take by making the most out of life, we keep wasting time. We’re all ticking time bombs. We don’t know if death will come sooner or later, but it will come for us, and time will help us get there.

This is what M. Night Shyamalan taps into in Old. One of the more unique, fascinatingly twisty and polarising genre filmmakers of our generation, your mileage and tolerance of Shyamalan will depend on how you find his storytelling and twists. But he has his directorial voice, where he’s not afraid to experiment with his craft. One common characteristic of his works is that there is always a twist, where Shyamalan taps into his best and worst filmmaking instincts. Some of his twists elevate the storytelling and others detract from the experience. However, he’s a filmmaker willing to take the oddest storytelling risks possible and make some entertainingly original genre blockbusters, especially when compared to the other new releases in the multiplexes.

Shyamalan’s career has gone through an eccentric trajectory, but once he directed The Visit and Split, it was generally agreed that he made his comeback. However, once Shyamalan followed all that up with Glass, the conclusion to his secret Unbreakable trilogy, it disappointed critics and fans. People were unsure if his comeback was a one-time thing or not. When the footage for Old came out, it divided the internet. Some felt it looked promising; others argued that it was laughable. But Old finally released, and, again, it divided critics and audiences. Those who enjoyed Old felt that he succeeded in capturing the existential horror of his concepts and others found it a laughable, poorly executed mess from start to finish. The majority, however, felt it was entertaining to watch for the right and wrong reasons. Sure, I can see the entertainment value that others did in Old, but from my experience, I found it to be a depressingly bleak, terrifying and existentially crushing viewing experience that doesn’t relent. Even though Old has its flaws, it’s amongst Shyamalan’s most personal and well-tuned offerings in his filmography.

Still from Old (2021) dir. M Night Shyamalan.

Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) take their children, Trent (Nolan River) and Maddox (Alexa Swinton), on their final vacation at a tropical resort so to spend their last moments as a family. Both parents are divorcing, struggling with their issues, and don’t want to add further pressure. When invited to a secluded beach, the family accepts. Joining them is another family: Charles (Rufus Sewell), his wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), his older mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), and his daughter Kara (Kylie Begley). Already at the beach is rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), whose partner is missing. Later joining them is couple Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and Jarin (Ken Leung). Hours pass, mysterious events occur around the beach: Mid-Sized Sedan’s partner is found dead, Agnes’s health problems worsen, and the kids rapidly age into unmatured teenagers (Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Eliza Scanlen). All parties find out time is condensed on the beach: for every half an hour that passes, a year does on the beach, reducing everyone’s lives into a single day.

So much of Old’s set-up is established as a slow burn, taking its time to set up its familial dynamics and concepts, especially when it moves to the beach. But there’s a cold, unsettling mood that hides in Old and remains so subtle at the start. It’s not until things start to go wrong at the beach that it sneaks up on you, and as the characters eventually make sense of their circumstances. The pure existential anxiety not only kicks in, but the pacing picks up like time is accelerating. Especially as Old closes in on the claustrophobia of its locations, it creates the inescapable feeling of helplessness and unreality.

Old is a huge swing from M. Night Shyamalan. It’s where he combines his goofy, B-movie thriller ambitions with some affecting family drama, mixed with existential and body horror in-between to visualise the characters’ plights, but it pays off. Shyamalan displays confident control of his craft and his tonal and genre elements. Old manages to be terrifying, uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing, affecting, and even funny at times. It’s easy to dismiss the performances and the dialogue as stilted, given how consistently cold and robotic the line deliveries sound, but this aspect feels intentional. It might be the characters trying to rationalise their situation, only for their logic to collapse as they age rapidly and the tension escalates, or the beach’s mysterious influence on them. Nevertheless, these uniquely odd choices turn Old into a fever dream, a projection of our internal fears and a realisation of the cruelties of time.

Still from Old (2021) dir. M Night Shyamalan.

Old’s existentialism means it is more focused on the characters’ dilemmas and their lack of control than the logistics of the beach’s influence. The horrors behind how the child characters are affected rest over how they never truly mature. They’re children trapped in teenagers’ bodies, either accelerating or skipping their processes of puberty and losing crucial stages of their lives. When Kara and Trent talk about memories they’ll never have, it’s heartbreaking, and how the characters’ attempts to escape descend into panic and a slow succumbing to their fates, that’s where Old’s bleak, yet moving messaging comes in. There’s no way to escape what occurs in life. You can’t turn the clock back and you can’t stop how your body keeps ageing. There’s no knowing when your life will end and attempts to deny or avoid that are futile. All you can do is be aware of how short life is, that your mortality doesn’t last forever, and to live your life.

On a stylistic level, Old is visually bold with its genuine commitment to its claustrophobic atmosphere. Michael Gioulakis’s cinematography brings the beauty of its beach to life before experimenting with his use of sharp pans, zoom-ins and zoom-outs, handheld tracking shots, and long takes, some of which manipulate rhythm and pacing to demonstrate the brevity of life. Off-centred and sometimes unfocused shots only add to Old’s unsettling nature, using wide spaces to demonstrate how these characters are trapped and deteriorating as they age much faster than they naturally would. It’s Shyamalan daring to exercise his filmic style as it benefits his storytelling, and it further forms part of Old’s identity.

Where Old gets on shaky ground is within the last twenty minutes. Without spoiling things, it’s where the classic M. Night Shyamalan twist comes into play, and it shifts his metaphor of the temporalities of life into something else. In hindsight, what Shyamalan presents here isn’t a conceptually bad idea, even though it feels left-field, despite the clues hiding in plain sight. However, it’s delivered in an exposition dump that makes it feel tacked on and builds to a catharsis that wraps things up too neatly and doesn’t feel entirely earned. Even then, it doesn’t allow Old to escape from its harrowing bleakness, especially when you consider the fates of the characters.

If there are other flaws to pinpoint, Shyamalan remains reliant on clunky dialogue and exposition when what is shown is enough. Another is that his depiction of Charles’s schizophrenia, especially as he grows violent, feels rather insensitive. I don’t think Shyamalan sets out to be malicious with his depiction of mental health but rather unintentionally misguided.

Other than those, Shyamalan sticks most of the landing for Old. Regardless of how you feel about his idiosyncrasies, Old’s existential horror caught up to me and features some of Shyamalan’s most emotionally sincere, stylistically compelling and entertaining filmmaking to date. Old may not be a masterpiece, but it is one that deserves a second chance.


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