“They grow up so fast” is a comfy parental platitude with a terrible truth lurking behind it, like a mask pulled over a grinning skull. To say the euphemistic words aloud is to acknowledge the bitter ephemerality of life—the fact that, before you know it, your button-cute kids will be adults with thinning hair and sagging midsections, hurtling towards oblivion just a step behind you. This grim reality looms as large as a blazing sun over Old, the new supernatural thriller written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Set largely on a secluded, anomalous stretch of sand and water where everyone ages at time-lapse speed, the film has flashes of clumsiness that should be familiar to those who have stepped before into the Twilight Zone of its maker’s imagination. But Old is also, in its most intense moments, one of his most genuinely disturbing visions: a horror movie about that most universal of horrors, inescapable mortality.
In his last picture, the somewhat unfairly derided Glass, Shyamalan earnestly, eccentrically meditated on the mythos of comic books. This time, he’s found inspiration in an actual comic: the French graphic novel Sandcastle, from which he borrows a basic plot outline but not a stylistic strategy. (The lush greens and shimmering crystal blues here are a far cry from the stark black-and-white imagery of Frederik Peeters’ artwork.) Source material aside, the film feels quintessentially Shyamalan from the jump, perhaps especially in its hiccups. Old gets off to a bumpy start, with a series of awkwardly expository scenes introducing Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps), traveling with their children, 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River), to a tropical resort. “You have a beautiful voice,” Mom tells her daughter. And then, in the first instance of ominous foreshadowing: “I can’t wait to hear it when you’re older.”
In the two decades since The Sixth Sense made him a household name, Shyamalan hasn’t much improved at writing dialogue. His characters still speak a stilted language of blunt emotional declaration and corny one-liners, periodically sounding like aliens approximating human interaction. But in Old, the anti-naturalistic clang of the exchanges eventually starts to contribute to the general nightmare vibe of Shyamalan’s scenario. At the manager’s suggestion, the family ends up decamping for a private swim on the other end of the island, joining a small group of fellow guests that includes a racist surgeon (Rufus Sewell), his bombshell wife (Abbey Lee), their grade-school-aged daughter (Kylie Begley), a SoundCloud rapper (Aaron Pierre), and a few others. “Something is going on with time on this beach,” one of them dimly, belatedly deduces, long after the adults start collecting wrinkles and their children start racing towards puberty at world-record speed.
This is about as close to pure allegory as Shyamalan has ever strayed. His wizening beach is nothing less than life itself as a physical space, with every milestone and humiliation of the aging process crammed into a single, dreadfully condensed day. Symbolic though this premise may be, the film devises several visceral, diabolical dilemmas from it: An emergency surgery is complicated by the fact that wounds close up in a matter of seconds, while the onset of dementia is horrifically accelerated, a running gag about a movie a character can’t remember curdling fast into pure hostile confusion. The film’s centerpiece sequence, shot in a queasy long take that whips back and forth across the sand, grotesquely exaggerates the ordinary mindfuck of parents passing down the torch of parenthood. With Old, Shyamalan puts a fantastic spin on the subjective brevity of youth; in this case, it doesn’t just seem like only yesterday that the kids were just kids. But he also generously acknowledges the cognitive dissonance of growing up, too—a child’s own shock at the new “colors,” as Maddox puts it, blooming in their brain.
Visually, it’s a tour de force, even by the standards of a director who finds inventive angles on the action in nearly all his movies, from the grand ones to the silly ones to the grandly silly ones. The camera spins and lurks and looms, enhancing the seasick disorientation. This is the third film Shyamalan has made with Mike Gioulakis, who shot his Split and Glass. Is there a cinematographer today who mines more menace from composition alone? Gioulakis sometimes keeps the threat hovering just below or beyond the frame, teasing us with what’s unseen. He understands his role in guiding (and limiting) an audience’s perspective—a key tenet of Shyamalan’s work, heavy on misdirection and delayed reveals. Old’s illusions are more analog than digital: Though the film deploys variably convincing makeup effects (and a little ghoulish CGI), it relies just as much on good casting. Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie, who play the prematurely advanced versions of the kids, have a slightly ageless quality; they convince as both teenagers and the older people they rapidly become.
In a Shyamalan movie, goofiness is always waiting at the gates, threatening to overthrow the scares. Depending on who you ask, this is a great flaw of his work or part of its idiosyncratic charm. Either way, there are times when Old’s defenses are breached; a bit of body horror involving dislocated bones borders on absurdist slapstick, perhaps on purpose. Less forgivably, the film’s final passage is too tidy, in a plainly Hollywood manner. It lacks the more haunting fatalism of the original comic, which knew that there’s only one sensible way for this story to end. Still, the power of the conceit lingers, somehow reinforced by the impression that Shyamalan, a middle-aged man with three daughters, is exorcising his own fears, though of course they’re ours and indeed everyone else’s, too. Old doesn’t just reconfirm his talent for sending a chill down the collective spine of the moviegoing public. It also proves this wizard of multiplex craftsmanship knows a thing or two about the human condition, even as the basics of human conversation continue to elude him.