When a director makes a cameo in his own film, it is often a wink to the audience. Alfred Hitchcock made a whole Where’s Waldo game out of it. The cameo is a blink-and-you-miss-it self-portrait that feels as much an in-joke as an imprint. Sometimes, it reinforces the artifice of cinema, hinting at the author behind its great illusion. M Night Shyamalan pulls off one such cameo in his new film, Old.
A group of vacationers are directed to a secluded beach. What they don’t know is they’re being driven to a beach that lies between (read in Rod Serling voice) “the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Behind the wheels of the van taking them there is who else but Shyamalan. With his next appearance much later in the film also comes another staple of the writer-director: the twist. Between them, as Martin Amis wrote in London Fields, “Time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.”
Before there is literal trouble in paradise, there is the metaphorical kind too. Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are a couple about to separate, and decide to take their kids, 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six-year-old Trent (Nolan River), on one last happy vacation. Guy is an actuary anticipating the risks of the future. Prisca is a museum curator who tends to artefacts from the past. What they have forgotten to enjoy is the present — which plays neatly into the movie’s thematic aspirations.
Joining them on the beach are: doctor Charles (Rufus Sewell), his model wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their daughter Kara (Kylie Begley), and her grandmother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant); psychologist Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and her husband Jarin (Ken Leung); and a rapper named — get this — Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre). It doesn’t take long for the viewer to suspect that these particular set of people weren’t chosen on a whim, and there’s a darker design to the plot brewing in the shadows. Between them, they have a host of illnesses: cancer, schizophrenia, epilepsy, and hypocalcaemia to name a few. Being an M Night Shyamalan film, that is hardly a coincidence.
The sea, the shore, and the sunlight lull us into heavenly respite before hellish details reveal themselves. Half an hour on the beach is worth a year. That means nearly a whole lifetime condensed to a day. No sunscreen or anti-aging serum can reverse these horrors. Shyamalan’s long pans contrast the deceptive stillness of the surroundings and the bedlam unfolding in the centre of the frame. Nature and man are in conflict. So are reality and fantasy. To make the setup work, Shyamalan must keep his characters trapped on the island. A force field of sorts comes in handy here. The group find out attempting to leave ends with them blacking out and waking up on the beach again.
The beach, a ticking time bomb, compels some much-needed soul-searching. The threat of impending death as always brings families closer. Priorities are re-examined. Petty disputes are forgiven and forgotten. The parents must watch their children come of age in the blink of an eye. Mourning their parents forces the children to come to terms with their own mortality. Because the physiological changes are more discernible with growing kids, the camera is shrewd on what it shows the viewer. The parents’ shocked faces do a lot of the heavylifting here, rather than any special effects. The kids are also recast to keep up with the rapid aging. Once they grow into teenagers, Trent and Kara (now played by Alex Wolff and Eliza Scanlen) hook up. No time to waste here. Minutes later, Kara’s pregnant — much to the shock of oblivious parents. If these children were modern-day Dorian Grays, they could have had selfies age in their place. But this isn’t that kind of movie.
Aging and aesthetics don’t serve as a comment on our obsession with youth or the purpose of art itself. It is a straightforward horror device.
The premise isn’t Shyamlan’s own. It comes from a French graphic novel called Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. All of Shyamalan’s films wrestle with death’s inevitability, creating a sort of thematic unity. They set up inescapable, often inexplicable, circumstances to observe how humanity responds to them. Old’s microcosm experiment of human response to accelerated aging is hurt by a loss of intimacy in its broad execution — and the inevitable twist. We can’t talk about Shyamalan and not talk about the third-act reveal. What seemed radical in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable has become routine. What once seemed novel now feels normal. There’s little satisfaction when you know it’s coming. What the viewer wants is to be surprised. At this point, the absence of a twist could have been the most novel twist Shyamalan could have pulled.
A stage had been set for a curious interplay of the objective experience of time and Henri Bergson’s idea of la durée, time as we actually experience it. Meaning time flies when you’re having fun and drags when you aren’t, speeding up or slowing down depending on the perception of the observer. What Shyamalan resorts to, however, is simple YOLO-isms. Throw in “Live in the now,” “Embrace your inner child,” and other platitudes. Old also suffers from embarrassingly stilted dialogue, as characters speak in the most grating kind of exposition.
One thing Shyamalan does do well is know how to choose ace cinematographers for his projects. He’s worked with Tak Fujimoto (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Happening), Eduardo Serra (Unbreakable), Roger Deakins (The Village), and Christopher Doyle (Lady in the Water) among others. Reuniting with Michael Gioulakis (who also shot Split and Glass), Shyamalan builds a mood of creeping dread. Cutaways to the cliff, the trees, and the waves lapping up hint at something sinister on the horizon. When a girl undresses and goes into the water, there’s a palpable sense of danger akin to Jaws. The danger here doesn’t come with razor-sharp teeth, but carries a fatal bite nonetheless.
All things said and done, add Old to the unrealised potential column of Shyamalan’s filmography. Indeed, it is because Shyamalan takes risks and remains uncompromising in his vision — faults and all — that he still commands admiration from audiences, especially those who are tired of watching pre-packaged and homogenised entertainment. It’s why he will forever remain a filmmaker whose every project will keep viewers in eager anticipation for better things.
Old is now available in Indian cinemas.
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