Old Man is a film that feels like it should work a lot better than it does. It’s an example of filmmaking that makes use of its minimal resources to great effect, a testament to the power of budget productions to create an entertaining experience as marshaled by director Lucky McKee. Writer Joel Veach has crafted a scenario that is both mysterious and engaging, and Stephen Lang’s titular performance is a tightrope walk of hilarity and menace. So why does Old Man still feel like a disappointment when the credits roll?
In the single-room cabin that comprises the entirety of the film’s setting, an unnamed old man (Stephen Lang) wakes up in a disoriented fog, grumbling to himself about how that dastardly dog Rascal has pissed on his floor and left him alone yet again. A knock at the door pulls him out of his angry ruminations, as the mild-mannered Joe (Marc Senter) comes calling, having stumbled upon the old man’s cabin while lost hiking in the woods. The old man invites Joe inside at the barrel of a shotgun, expressing a paranoid reluctance to let the younger man into his home without assurances of safety that gives way to a blatant desire for company. But the old man’s erratic and unpredictable behavior begs the question of whether Joe will survive the encounter.
The moment-to-moment draw of the film is the cat-and-mouse interplay between the old man and Joe, with Lang serving as the mood-swinging, storytelling madman to Senter’s combination of mollifying victim and comedic straight man. Lang’s performance is a joy to behold, one moment away from violence at all times, but also lonely, tortured, and shockingly funny as fitful bouts of hospitality overtake his overeager instincts for self-preservation. It’s a feat for Lang to come across as terrifying and affable in the same breath, with his character acting as a livewire that jolts life into the film whenever it threatens to slip into tedium, and the commitment to not turning the character’s eccentricities into an arch caricature is an achievement when his personality is written to be so much larger than his meager frame.
Senter is less up to the task of extensive monologuing than Lang, delivering his lines with a slow and drawling cadence that sounds less thoughtful than painstakingly memorized from the film’s script, and if this is a conscious acting choice, it certainly doesn’t come across as such in the moment. Thankfully, Lang is compelling enough for both of them, even making up for the camera’s occasional lack of dynamism. Granted, there isn’t much space within this tiny set for the camera to move with the characters—and an occasional shot does highlight important production details through careful framing—but overall the cinematography focuses on the conversation with simple reaction shots and uninteresting compositions that don’t place the characters in frame with much care. This gives the film a rather stagey quality, raising the question of whether live theater is a better venue for this story than a feature film.
And it’s that feature length that most greatly diminishes the impact of the film, both in terms of pacing and in having sufficient substance to fill the time. Even running at a meager 97 minutes, Old Man spends over an hour being frustratingly coy with its story, focusing on Lang’s rambling diatribes while drawing out the mysteries central to its premise with few bones thrown to the audience in the interim. The respective identities and motivations of the old man and Joe, the missing Rascal, and the questionable reality outside the old man’s cabin are interesting mysteries in a vacuum—worthy of an episode of The Twilight Zone if not a feature film—but their resolution is simultaneously too simplistic and too suddenly revealed to make the journey to the climax retroactively satisfying. It’s not that the pieces of a puzzle slot together with satisfying revelation, but more that the most obvious solution is sledgehammered home with excessive force and an unearned turn into surreality.
This makes Old Man hypnotic in the moment, but deflating in the aftermath, as the climax will most certainly invite discussion but little insight into the old man’s character beyond the most superficial observations. It’s not a bad ending, per se, but it is underwhelming for all the preceding build-up. While still recommendable for Stephen Lang’s compelling eccentricities, Old Man bears that endorsement with a major caveat for surviving almost solely on that offbeat charisma.