Old, review: M Night Shyamalan is back, with a more deranged plot than ever
Dir: M Night Shyamalan. 15 cert, 108 mins
It’s tempting to reconsider the whole career of M Night Shyamalan every time he mounts a comeback, but in Old, his Twilight Zone-esque stab at a mind-bending supernatural thriller, there simply isn’t time. Too much is proceeding apace: specifically, the rapid ageing of every character here who finds themselves stranded on a tropical island beach. Even half an hour on these mysterious sands causes all 11 visitors to get one year crinklier; a tumour someone has been hiding triples in size by the minute.
Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Priska (Vicky Krieps) are a troubled couple, on holiday with children aged six and 11, who let the hotel management coax them into a plan for the day, involving a secluded slice of paradise they’re meant to have all to themselves. Two other families show up with the same idea, but before they’ve even set up deckchairs, a stranger’s corpse is found floating in the surf, swimsuits for the children stop fitting properly, and a general atmosphere of hectic bafflement descends. Needless to say, because of some invisible forcefield in the rock passageway through which they entered, no one can leave.
It’s a rare example of adaptation by Shyamalan. He based this conceit on a Swiss graphic novel called Sandcastle (2010), but has comprehensively made the story his own – which is to say, he’s set it up as an amorphous puzzle with a solution only he could devise. The book’s unexplained phenomena won’t quite do, so this nests the premise inside a vaguely scientific framework that’s only revealed late on. Shyamalan isn’t minded to go deep along the way: some filmmakers might have fashioned a poignant disquisition on our inevitable decay from all this, but he just wants things to get weird and creepy, fast.
The pacing is a huge can of worms. How do you keep track of 11 characters separately advancing through half a lifetime, give them meaningful interactions, and have the cast – especially the unenviable leads – look anything other than confused in geriatric make-up? With every trick in the book, essentially. The children venture off-screen for 10 minutes; when Shyamalan brings them back, a whole new trio of actors (Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, Eliza Scanlen) have taken over the roles. Those three, proven talents, do creditably at remembering they’re still meant to be kids beneath, particularly Wolff, who commits like crazy to this boy-man and almost gets you caring.