By KEN MICHAELS
Straring Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps and Rufus Sewell
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
There’s a moment in OLD when a character who has heretofore been mysterious is revealed to be a rapper named Mid-Size Sedan. No self-respecting rapper at any point in the history of the form would call himself “Mid-Size Sedan,” which speaks to the major issues at the heart of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest. And that’s a shame, because there are great ideas and imaginative filmmaking scattered throughout the movie, like nuggets of gold in a beach of coarse and rough and irritating sand.
If you recognize that as a George Lucas reference, that’s intentional, since Shyamalan is at the point Lucas was when he made the STAR WARS prequels; i.e., he desperately needs someone else to write his scripts, or at least his dialogue. It’s also a reference to OLD’s principal setting, a secluded cove near a luxurious tropical resort visited by Guy (Gael García Bernal), Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and their two kids, tween Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and little Trent (Nolan River). Trent has a habit of asking everyone he meets their names and vocations, a convenient way for Shyamalan to introduce us to some of the other guests as he drops in hints of tension. Guy and Prisca are working through a rough patch in their relationship, exacerbated by her unspecified illness, while therapist Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) has a very public seizure.
A vacation from this vacation appears to be in order, so our central family and another brood headed by a doctor named Charles (Rufus Sewell), accept an invitation to visit the aforementioned beach. Tney’re joined by Patricia and her nurse husband Jarin (Ken Leung), and all seems relaxing and tranquil…until Trent encounters a woman’s floating dead body. Then he and Maddox, along with Charles’ little daughter Kara, mysteriously become several years older, and soon the trio are teenagers played by Alex Wolff (HEREDITARY), Thomasin McKenzie and Eliza Scanlen. (Fortunately for the PG-13 rating, their bathing suits magically expand to contain their matured bodies.) Their parents and the other adults determine that something about the isolated locale, walled in by impassible cliffs, is making them all age at an accelerated rate–and won’t let them leave.
In a cinematic landscape where practically every single studio release is a sequel or spinoff (even the good stuff like A QUIET PLACE PART II), it is a relief to see something not only original but defiantly different come from one of the majors. And as always, Shyamalan (who makes his most meta cameo yet, playing the resort driver who delivers his cast to their fates) is completely committed to his eccentric vision, playing it to the hilt and encouraging his actors to do likewise. He uses all kinds of disorienting angles and other visual tricks to get us into the bewildered mental state of his characters and tease us with the early reveals of some of their suddenly older selves. He also sufficiently transforms what should be an idyllic little piece of paradise into a sun-baked trap that you can feel for the basic plight of the people vainly attempting to escape it.
But oh, whenever they open their mouths… None of the adults in OLD talk remotely like recognizable human beings; instead, they express themselves with arch, on-the-nose, overexplanatory or overanalytical statements that serve only to distance us from them as people. Attempts to individualize them, particularly as they deal with the desperate circumstances, just come off as silly, as when Charles’ deteriorating mental state is signaled by his obsession with a bit of ’70s movie trivia. Shyamalan attempts to make points about greater themes like racism (the aforementioned Mr. Sedan comes under unearned suspicion of responsibility for that female corpse) to go with his overarching examination of people forced to confront their mortality much faster than they ever expected. But his scripting of this material is so awkward and overdone that it sometimes elicits giggles rather than the intended gasps.
The actors play everything straight and intense, which works here and there but also underlines that silliness; the moments of full-on body horror range from genuinely shocking to comically exaggerated. It’s all leading, of course, to the Big Shyamalan Climactic Reveal; without giving anything away, part of the story’s resolution hinges on an out-of-nowhere element of the landscape, while the final-act twist both makes sense and puts an intriguing ethical spin on the whole scenario. It’s not fully followed through on, but it ends up more compelling than a lot of what has preceded it.