This article discusses the plot of Old.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s “beach that makes you old” movie, the aptly titled Old, the director returns to a familiar fear: What happens when a parent fails to protect their child? Since his 1999 breakout, The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has populated his idiosyncratic universe of anxiety with parents who fail to parent, mentors who fail to instruct, and doctors who fail to cure. Across his filmography, characters find themselves facing extraordinary situations because a person of authority falls short.
It makes sense that Shyamalan would focus so heavily on parenting. He became a father in 1996, three years before becoming Hollywood’s golden child himself. Now a father of three, Shymalan has turned his productions into a family affair. His second child, Ishana, has directed and written for his Apple TV+ series Servant and was a second unit director on Old; Saleka, his oldest, wrote and performed songs for both Servant and Old. His kids, the director says, were there from the beginning of Old. “It came from a book that Ishana and my other daughters gave me for Father’s Day,” he said of the film’s source material, Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters’ graphic novel Sandcastle. “This book gave me the opportunity to work through things like my parents’ getting older, and how I have a photo of Ishana on my lap during Unbreakable and now she’s standing next to me on set. That’s what the movie is about.” Although this might have been a recent revelation, it’s something that’s been on his mind throughout his career.
Shyamalan’s work almost always begins with a parent, guardian, or person of authority being overpowered, disarmed, or incapacitated. For example, The Sixth Sense follows Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychologist, shot by a patient who accuses Crowe of failing to cure him. 2002’s Signs sees lapsed priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) abandoning his flock after the death of his wife. The trend continues through 2017’s Split, where Kevin Wendall Crumb (James McAvoy) kidnaps three girls after knocking out one of their fathers. Time and again, Shyamalan creates his dread and tension by removing any chance of protection.
The director mines this dynamic for no less than three tense set pieces across multiple movies involving a child pulling a gun on a guardian. This happens in The Sixth Sense’s opening scene, where Crowe faces his patient, and in both Unbreakable and Split. Children often serve as reminders of mortality for Shyamalan characters, and when those children wield firearms, their power becomes an active threat. In Shyamalan’s universe, parents and guardians fixate on protecting children, but can they protect themselves from their children?
It expands past the traditional setup of child and parent. In many of his movies, the parents’ failures lead children to seek out (and be failed by) other guardians. Split and Glass create networks of failed protection and guidance, from Kevin Wendall Crumb’s hierarchy of personalities that protect him from the trauma of his abusive childhood to Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson) imprisoning and gaslighting Crumb, Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), and David Dunn (Bruce Willis).
Paternalism isn’t the solution for Shyamalan. He frequently depicts parents and guardians that endanger their kids. This theme is present throughout his work: David Dunn admits to neglecting his son, The Village’s Edward Walker (William Hurt) and the Elders create a faux old-timey town to isolate their children from the violence of the modern world, Split’s Uncle John (Brad William Henke) abuses his niece (Anya Taylor-Joy) on a family hunting trip. In one of The Sixth Sense’s most upsetting sequences, a woman poisons her daughter in a disturbing depiction of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Amid supernatural occurrences, Shyamalan taps into real, everyday horror, depicting these crimes as otherworldly in their cruelty and as common as a cold.
Old finds Shyamalan, once again, dealing with parents and kids. Taking place at a seaside getaway straight out of The Twilight Zone, Old sees Guy and Prisca (Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps) watch helplessly as their children grow up before their eyes in a matter of hours. Although Shyamalan’s previous works explored what happens when someone fails in their professional or personal duties, Old looks at an impossible villain: time itself. Time isn’t a failing that can be reversed (even if the film posits a world where humans can eventually science their way out of all illness). Instead, the characters must recognize that a parent cannot always be there for their children, especially after, you know, death. Still, Shyamalan digs into another horrible fact of life: that the curse of mortality is hereditary, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. It is when Prisca accepts the mortality of herself and her children that she can let go.
Parenting is the great anxiety that Shyamalan can’t shake. His characters’ helplessness as they watch their young grow and change in directions that they can’t control often results in their demise. In Old, there’s simply nothing they can do to slow the passage of time. It turns out that the ultimate “Shyamalan twist” is that every one of his characters will eventually die, and there’s nothing their parents can do about it. From movie to movie, Shyamalan’s parental concerns shift. One minute, he’s using children as harbingers of death, and in the next, guides to salvation. Yet he remains fixated on the limits of parenting, builds worlds where protectors are helpless and the innocent are vulnerable. For a director with a knack for supernatural frights, the everyday concerns of parenting may be the scariest of all.