M. Night Shyamalan has stated that he doesn’t necessarily make horror, preferring to describe his work as closer to thrillers. But there’s little doubt that the horror genre remains a significant influence on him and his work – Shyamalan has wrung scares out of ghosts, aliens, monsters, and even plants, but those fantastical aspects of his stories often take a back seat to the ways his characters deal with those experiences, and the terror usually lends itself more to the psychological than the strictly physical.
Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, Shyamalan’s latest film, Old, is a freefall descent into the horrors of aging for both the characters and audience. It’s as effectively scary and unsettling as any of his better films, with an enormous amount of credit owed to the brilliant cinematography of Mike Gioulakis (who has worked with Shyamalan on Split, Glass, and the Apple TV+ series Servant) as well as some exceptional performances from the cast, who are able to bring the necessary nuance to an at times prosaic screenplay. By its end, Old shows that this consistently fascinating filmmaker still has a talent for mixing supernatural and / or science fictional fears with very real and deeply emotional ones. It’s one of his more earnestly human stories to date.
Set in a beautiful and remote tropical resort, the film follows a seemingly happy family – wife and mother Prisca (Vicky Krieps), husband and father Guy (Gael García Bernal), and their two young children Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and Trent (Nolan River) – arriving to kick off a much-needed vacation full of relaxation. The four laugh and sing songs together on their ride over and once they arrive, Trent is quick to make friends with another kid his age named Idlib (Kailen Jude) and the pair go around chatting up the resort guests in very cute ways while the rest of the family lovingly looks on. The fun dynamic is suddenly broken by the reveal of the real reason why they’ve come here: Prisca and Guy are getting a divorce and plan to use the trip as a way to break the news to the children.
But before they can, the resort’s overly affable manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) seeks the family out to recommend a private and secluded beach, something he supposedly only offers to select guests. A bus promptly whisks them away to a genuinely gorgeous seaside, albeit one that’s not quite as private as promised. Another family has also been invited: a wealthy doctor named Charles (Rufus Sewell), his elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), his wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), and their daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey). The beach is also occupied by someone who Maddox recognizes to be a famous rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), and the group is joined soon after by vacationing couple Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird).
Things are peaceful enough until a body suddenly washes up on the beach, sparking fear and distrust among everyone, which soon gives way to outright terror and eventual panic when they all realize that they’re trapped on the small shore they’ve been left on. There’s no phone reception anywhere, the cliffs surrounding the beach are far too steep to climb, and they can’t go back the way they came. Things only get far, far worse when the group also discover that this tropical prison is somehow causing them to age at an alarming rate, where every hour adds years to their bodies and minds. With the children suddenly thrust into their teens (Thomasin McKenzie plays the older Maddox, Alex Wolff plays the older Trent, and Eliza Scanlen plays the older Kara) and the adults rapidly suffering from the ailments of old age, they have very little time to find a way to escape before their lives are over.
Old plays very much like memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone, namely the ones where a core cast of characters find themselves in extraordinary circumstances in a singular location, and Shyamalan manages to nail the same kind of tone. The film is deeply unnerving both in what its premise of fast-tracked aging implies and what is explicitly shown, which makes for some of the filmmaker’s scariest sequences of his entire career. But Old never feels too dour, allowing it to lean a bit into its obvious B-movie sensibilities and offer up some darkly funny moments as well, like how Charles – who is shown to have stress-related mental issues with a dash of racism – starts repeatedly asking aloud about a specific movie starring Marlon Brando that he can’t remember whenever he begins to feel overwhelmed; a humorous tic that quickly becomes a siren for incoming terror.
Each character represents some different facet of aging – for the kids, it’s the loss of innocence that comes with growing out of childhood and experiencing more of the harsher sides of life, all the mistakes, trauma, and heartbreak that it comes with. Even if they had never been taken to this beach, both Maddox and Trent would’ve been forced to grow up faster due to the separation of their parents. Chrystal, who’s obsessed with looks and photos of herself, is unable to deal with the onset of wrinkles and the other less desirable physical changes of age. It may be a simplistic if not shallow lesson on vanity, but Lee is able to imbue Chrystal with enough empathy to overcome the script’s shortcomings. The rest, like how medical conditions accelerate, hearing and eyesight start to fade, and a lifetime of traumatic events are experienced within a day, is pure nightmare fuel.
Yet even with all of its horror-tinged thrills, there’s an undercurrent of humanity throughout the film. Sandcastle has been described as a mood piece, and Shyamalan, while more interested in setting up mystery and drama, still captures some essence of the original graphic novel alongside Gioulakis. A mesmerizing game of freeze tag perfectly expresses the carefree and loving nature of childhood, and poignant shots of kids happily playing in the sand as their parents angrily stew in the background encapsulate the central family turmoil. Gioulakis is also able to make the location feel both awe-inspiring and oppressive with its vast ocean and looming cliffsides. It’s a movie that requires feeling more than analysis, which can easily expose some of its issues.
Old sometimes stumbles with the way it establishes characters and gets everything set up, and some of its ideas, most notably, the marital drama between Prisca and Guy, can feel too broad. Prisca works in a museum and is stuck in the past, and Guy works in insurance and is thus focused too much on the future. Both need to be more in the present, but the specificities of that are nowhere to be found – this is about the most one ever gets to know about their problems with each other. The film also dedicates a significant amount of time in building up its mystery of what’s causing the aging, who may be behind it, and why, leading to a signature Shyamalan conclusion that’s more of a reveal than a twist. But the eventual explanation, while interesting, almost feels unnecessary by the time it gets there. The ending could have been just as, if not more, cathartic had the reveal simply been removed and the exact cause of things left unexplained. It hardly feels important by that point and it adds a puzzling layer of moral ambiguity that the film is better off without.
Nontheless, Shyamalan takes a relatively simple premise and continues to build on it, making for one of his most engaging works yet. It’s a film with momentum, where both the intensity and the quieter emotional beats ramp up and take the audience to melancholic, terrifying, and enlightening places. It’s certainly one of his best looking films with some standout performances, and although it primarily takes place in the one spot, it feels like one of his biggest in scale. Old evokes fears and feelings about something that everyone experiences eventually, and what one of Hollywood’s most beguiling filmmakers has to say about them makes it impossible to not be affected in some way or another by it. Perhaps not a Sixth Sense or an Unbreakable, but a Signs or Split? Absolutely.