In many ways M. Night Shyamalan is a perfect representation of his hometown of Philadelphia. He’s a foundational figure in modern cinema, with both a reverence for the traditions that made him and an idealism for what could be. Despite myriad talents, he often gets overlooked compared to other big city directors, never quite getting the respect that his output and influence would otherwise command. And most importantly – as any Philly sports fan can relate – he often comes frustratingly close to enduring glory, only for some crucially lacking element or misguided move right near the end that not only stops the big win, but can retroactively kill the potential leading up to it. Every once in a while he does break through with pure brilliance (Sixth Sense, Split) just like the Big 4 teams (Eagles winning the Super Bowl in 2018, Phillies winning the World Series in 2008), but more often than not the hopes get quickly deflated (The Village, Signs, Glass) just shy of the finish line (the 76ers blowing a 26-point lead in a series-clinching game against Atlanta, 2011 Phillies losing in the NLDS despite a 100-win season, Flyers losing the Stanley Cup Finals six times since they last won).
Sadly, this trend continues with his latest film, Old. What begins with a solid premise and interesting characters (even if they are one-note) eventually unravels thanks to Shyamalan’s obsessive devotion to a twist ending. It’s a shame, because up until the film’s climax, there’s a lot to like. The setup is strong, the effects are well-executed, and Night’s not afraid to go really dark with the themes (see what I did there?). Unfortunately it just fizzles out with a resolution that, honestly, has not only been done before, but done much better by other films.
The movie takes place at a tropical resort, where the Cappa family is spending one last vacation before the parents – Guy and Prisca (Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps, respectively) – get a divorce. Their children, Trent and Maddox (played for the bulk of the action by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie), are aware of their family discord, and cope with it as best they can. Trent, age 6, has a somewhat annoying habit of introducing himself to every adult at the resort, asking them their names, hometowns, and occupations, and Maddox, age 11, is essentially his only friend, at least until he meets Idlib (Kailen Jude), the nephew of the resort’s general manager.
This establishment of our protagonists already sort of illustrates the problem with Shyamalan’s style this time around. The last name, Cappa implies the Greek letter, Kappa, which already puts the subliminal idea in your mind that these people are just part of an order, that they’re expendable, and it doesn’t help that the father is literally just named “Guy.” Shyamalan is telling us right away that these people are both worth rooting for but also ultimately meaningless, and that’s a hard thought to reconcile, even subconsciously while the film plays itself out. When the family is offered an afternoon on a secluded, private beach, it also beggars belief when the resort employee who drives them to the spot is played by Shyamalan himself, and makes a big deal about not being able to accompany them all the way or carry their belongings.
All of this isn’t automatically bad, but it’s something we’ve all seen before, especially from Shyamalan, to the point that it becomes a running gag. He’s a brilliant writer and filmmaker, but he gets too caught up in his own intellect, figuratively and literally inserting himself into the proceedings in a way that, after the first few times you see it, pulls you right out of the film. Instead of engaging with the plot and characters from the earliest moments, we’re instead put into Detective Mode to try to find the bit of foreshadowing, MacGuffin, or Chekhov’s Gun element that’s going to play into the twisty twisty twist that’s supposed to blow our minds, but doesn’t because we’re prepared for it. It’s like the reality TV show, Big Brother. Arguably the best season in the show’s domestic history was Season 10, which was hastily thrown together after the 2008 Writers Guild strike necessitated a winter season for their ninth outing. All the usual elements of fuckery were put into Season 9, which is among the worst the show ever did, and as such, Season 10 was the most normal of all, with the purest game since it was fully established in Seasons 2 and 3. The big “twist” of the season ended up being that there was no twist, and the game unfolded completely organically, but there was still enough paranoia among the cast waiting for the other shoe to drop that things stayed interesting throughout.
Imagine if Shyamalan did that for a change? Create a film that is completely antithetical to his usual trademarks (NOT The Last Airbender!). No twist, no red herrings, no cameo. Just a straightforward thriller with fully fleshed out characters that unfolds with natural progression and elevation of stakes. How amazing could that be? We may never know.
Anyway, back to the story. Once the Cappas arrive at the beach, they are quickly joined by a diverse cast of cannon fodder, including a bourgeois doctor (Rufus Sewell) who has a bit of a memory problem, particularly trying to remember a movie that featured both Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson (it’s The Missouri Breaks, just so you don’t kill yourself trying to come up with it; but the execution of the bit is still really fun). He’s accompanied by his ultra-vain trophy wife (Abbey Lee), his mother (Kathleen Chalfant) and young daughter Kara, who’s the same age as Trent (but eventually played by Eliza Scanlen, Beth from Greta Gerwig’s Little Women). We also have a psychologist (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a nurse (Ken Leung, which feels like a meta joke, given his time on LOST), and a famous rapper named – I shit you not – Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), because at this point Shyamalan apparently said, “Fuck it, we all know the black guy’s gonna die. Why bother giving him an actual name and pretend he’s a character?”
As the kids swim and have fun, the body of a young woman washes up on the shore, a companion of Sedan’s who went out for a swim but didn’t return. Her body decomposes very quickly, and within moments the children start aging into adolescents and young adults. Everyone realizes that time is moving exponentially faster on this beach than elsewhere, and that if they don’t escape, they’ll all eventually die in less than a day. However, they can’t go back the way they came, as the rocky trail makes them pass out, and the tide is too strong to swim out and around the nearby outcroppings. Meanwhile, the kids notice they’re being watched by the tour guide who brought them here, Shyamalan literally playing voyeur to his own cleverness.
Now, in a vacuum, this is all really fun and exciting. It allows the actors to stretch their ranges, playing up different ages, abilities, and mental states, even though each character is rigidly (and likely intentionally) one-dimensional. The deliberate pace at which they figure out their situation is a genuinely interesting mystery, especially as they realize their common ground that might be the reason for their deadly circumstances. And when the body count starts rising, there are a couple of decent scares and laughs. Shyamalan even employs some very effective panning effects to show the progression of the ensemble’s collective fear. Plus we eventually get Thomasin McKenzie in a revealing swimsuit (I know, I’m a perv, get over it). There’s a lot of stuff to like here.
But again, it’s in service of a twist that not only ends up being lame and derivative (seriously, not to spoil, but Cabin in the Woods did it so much better), but because we’ve been conditioned by Shyamalan’s films to look for the answers that are figuratively screaming in our faces, we don’t really get the time to engage with all of it, because we’re just waiting for the big reveal. An incredible bit of body mutilation that is legitimately disturbing ends up feeling perfunctory rather than a pure scare, because it’s just another victim we have to tick off our collective checklist before we can just get to the ending.
If Shyamalan hadn’t telegraphed his moves so clearly from the get-go, this would have been among the most thrilling films of the year. As it is, it’s still pretty good, but it could have been so much more if the director didn’t do the cinematic equivalent of Donovan McNabb vomiting in his helmet during the Big Game. I still recommend seeing it, but lower your expectations going in. This isn’t The Happening, but it’s also not Unbreakable. If you know that in advance, you can still enjoy what we do end up getting.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy M. Night Shyamalan’s style? What would be a big twist that you’d like to see? Let me know!