The author is behind an analysis project about M. Night Shyamalan‘s films. There are several articles on each: The Sixth Sense (1999, here, here and here), Unbreakable (2000, here, here and here), Signs (2002, here, here, here and here), The Village (2004, here, here and here), Lady in the Water (2006, here and here), The Happening (2008, here, here and here), The Last Airbender (2010, here and here), After Earth (2013, here and here), Split (2016, here, here, here, and here), Glass (2019, here). All the articles can also be accessed through this overview.
The plot of Old will be freely discussed, but when the twist is spoiled this will be clearly marked. For a summary of the plot (note that it reveals the twist) see here, and for a character and cast list here.)
Each human being is a separate universe. Personality and identity form its core and are drawn upon in a crisis. Respectable occupations are shorthand statements about what has been achieved in life and are used to impress upon others that one is to be reckoned with and can be trusted to lead.
Like Kevin Crumb of Split and Glass comprised multiple personalities, all defined by a basic trait, divided into factions striving for dominance and leadership, Old (2021) projects this set-up unto individuals of flesh and blood. An important subject in M. Night Shyamalan‘s new film is how its twelve tourists, as if a human clock face, are not only trapped on a beach where ageing and thus subjective time are abnormally accelerated, but also trapped inside their separate identities and concerns, making it hard for them to efficiently co-operate and fully empathise with each other.
Instead they cling to their regular-life coping mechanisms. But the doctor’s urge to dominate, the psychologist’s impulse to make people air their inner feelings, and the nurse’s belief in constructive, rational thinking – all of these turn out to be useless and time is rapidly running out. It does not matter what you have achieved in life when it storms towards inescapable death. The happiest people in Old are its central married couple, in old age facing oblivion with acceptance and simple, mutual love.
This psychological entrapment is running through most of their time on the beach, in behaviour, dialogue and imagery, for example how characters are placed in the same frame but preoccupied with totally different things. Not only do the four families/factions all operate in a vacuum, within each of them again virtually every adult does the same. The married couple in the main family, Guy and Prisca, are heading towards divorce and almost entirely estranged, to the point of accusing each other of occupying different time planes, living in the future and past, respectively. The doctor of the other family, Charles, thirsts for dominance, also over his trophy wife, Chrystal, who leads a separate existence, obsessed by her body and looks. The only exception is the warm, loving marriage between the Asian-American male nurse, Jarin, and the Black psychologist, Patricia, and it is notable how they take over when both parents in the doctor’s family have failed their daughter Kara when she is about to give birth.
Like with all the film’s primary concerns, the doctor, who is also mentally ill, represents the theme of entrapment in a magnified way, in how he clings to the fact that he is the Chief Medical Officer of his hospital – should he lose that title it seems to mean the end of his existence. (He also stands for rampant paranoia and racism.) It is almost moving to hear him yammering “I’m a good doctor” as he attacks Guy with a knife at the height of his delusions. When the psychologist prepares to swim away in a pathetically doomed attempt to escape, driven by an urge to reconcile with her sister, it is again strangely moving how she is compelled to say that the sister is “a therapist too”.
The characters of Old seem obsessed with their occupations, almost weaponised, as these “life achievements” are constantly trumpeted and brandished towards others. Even the unconventional rap artist ultimately feels the urge to point out that his parents were an attorney and a dentist, and he went to a private school, in order to be taken seriously. Prisca tells the doctor that she curates exhibitions for museums, “because I want you to trust me and you won’t think I’m hysterical.”
The children too are fixated on achievements: 6-year-old Trent proudly tells of solving thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles with his father, which is “a considerable thing to do”, and his new friend Idlib responds by mentioning his collection of conch shells, plus the fact that he has exactly 42 of them. Trent habitually plays a game of asking strangers their names and occupations (this becomes important later, since one of them was a cop, and can be approached for immediate assistance at a critical juncture). The film’s small children’s precocious behaviour and urge to speak like adults seem like a sly foreshadowing of their future age-confusion on the beach, having adult bodies but still immature minds.
So both the extremely disjointed nature of the interactions on the beach and the so-called “clumsy” dialogue, for example all the unsolicited mentions of professions, seem fully intentional from the writer-director’s side. (By the way, when story, imagery and tone are often accepted as aspects of an off-kilter film, why cannot dialogue have a similar function?) There is also a certain estrangement effect caused by the “unnatural” dialogue and its sometimes staccato elocution.
An early duel of professions occurs when the psychologist suffers an epilepsy attack in the hotel dining room, and the doctor takes command of the situation (“I’m a doctor”) even though her husband has parried with “I’m a nurse” and ought to have everything under control. But the other imperviously pays no attention and also misremembers his name, Jarin, as Jack – an early sign of degraded mental acuity, perhaps, but the whole situation is definitely a harbinger of the incompatibilities of world-views to come. The exchange might feel odd, but it has a reason within the universe of the film and also within the dynamics of the scene.
On the whole, it is a bit odd to see the various criticisms of the dialogue offered up, often thoughtlessly, as examples of “over-explaining” things. When Chrystal mentions the word “calcium” three times during her breakfast exchange with the waiter, what is more plausible: (a) that the character is obsessed with calcium, as well as wanting to impress upon the waiter its importance or (b) that the writer has not discovered the repetition, or thinks audiences need to get it hammered in? (In fact, parsing that exchange, it does not come across as particularly unnatural.)
Trajectory, tone and highlights
Although the framing story and twist are surprisingly prosaic, for long stretches of the main body Old conjures up a combination of tension, absurdity and chaos that few other films have achieved. A lot of its power comes from its astoundingly varied formal apparatus, which Adam Cook has examined in this excellent article, published soon after the premiere. Montages hopes to get back to this aspect when the film becomes available for home viewing and close visual analysis.
In this author’s opinion, Old is losing some of its impact when the number of remaining characters are reduced as the evening and night set in. Absurdity recedes and is replaced by a purer drama, but while more conventional the action is still gripping, with Kara’s doomed climb as a prime example. In the evening, however, the tone becomes more one-dimensional and the emotions sometimes veer perilously close to sentimentalism. It is occasionally moving towards the end, achieving a rugged simplicity in the situation where the heavily aged Guy haltingly declares his love for Prisca. It is difficult not to be touched, also because of a certain reference to an earlier film. The fact that both of them have English as only a second language adds poignancy to their old age when their command of it becomes less sure.
At another juncture, Old unsuccessfully strives for resonance when Maddox sings the same song to her old, deaf-in-one-ear mother as in the van during the film’s opening, and equally awkwardly. Despite Vicky Krieps‘s fine acting, her demeanour convincingly old, the callback comes across as too obvious and heavy-handed. The song, “Remain”, was written especially for the film by the director’s daughter Saleka, a promising artist in her own right, whose lyrics speak of life eventually being washed away with “no monuments made in my name” and of unconditional familial love. (She is announced as Saleka Night Shyamalan during the end credits – is it a family in-joke that she has appropriated her father’s Night “nick-name”?)
The mother’s death scene a bit later, however, is wrapped in a camera movement that is one of Old‘s many highlights, and also a prime example of its extensive play on off-screen space. After her husband has died, she walks towards the shoreline, but stops, overcome by chest pain. But the camera just keeps moving, looking out into the waves, that have been crashing all through the film as a clock relentlessly ticking down. Then the camera returns, a little faster as if pushed in by a wave, and we realise that, off-screen, Prisca has turned and used her last strength to walk back to the others, to die near her loved ones. But again the camera just moves on past them, then settles to look towards the wall of rock, which has trapped them, and racks focus as if to more clearly show the reason for her death. Finally, the camera turns and gazes at the family, two dead and their grieving children, with the open fire in the foreground.
This unbroken take has comprised both borders of their prison (ocean, rock wall), and the inclusion of the fire adds another of the four classical elements to this story of the basics of survival and existence. The camera movement itself, operating as if detached from the characters, has emphasised the universe’s indifference to their fate, further maintained at the end by gazing at them from a distance. This is real camera writing!
In a film where time exaggeratedly flies, it feels appropriate to zoom in on some memorable moments. Take the shot where the rap artist walks into an arresting close-up, as if in a daze, his eyes shiny and empty, oddly greeting the sight of the body of his drowned female companion with just a flat “oh, damn”, his first words in the film. Later, the shots of him sitting alone by the small creek attain resonance only on subsequent viewings, because they turn out to be our last sight of him alive, and seem inserted to give his character some closure – the Zen moment he has been craving? – before he is very soon brutally killed. Another great moment is Kara’s endearingly childish face at the end of the dreamy freeze tag scene, where she stands in immovable pause when in reality weeks are rushing past. (As if quietly commenting on the time distortion on the beach, her stillness seems to be shown in slow-motion, as can be seen by the other children’s sluggish run in the background.)
Perhaps the most magical moment in Old is the series of close-ups of the characters dissolved into the rock face, as the grim truth of their accelerated lives dawns upon them, as if the craggy rock itself is etching age wrinkles into their faces. The mood is beautifully augmented by Shyamalan’s Servant composer Trevor Gureckis‘s questioning “sense of wonder” music, in a film that is otherwise marked by a harsh, industrial soundscape, in the same vein as West Dylan Thordson of Split and Glass.
The rock wall, made somehow more ominous and unhealthy-looking by its many-coloured appearance, also speaks powerfully in the extreme close-up of the doctor just after he has killed the rapper, as it totally dominates the image while the human being is pushed to the edge, his face exactly split in half by the edge of the frame, as he sits paralysed. In the reverse shot, his wife is also brilliantly captured, standing alone after the others have left, her razor-thin body centred in the frame in contrast to her husband, looking so lonely and lost, sending him a look that is a singular mixture of disgust and sadness.
Later, there is a mysterious, silhouetted shot of the doctor from behind, while he ruefully speaks to his dead mother, finally admitting to his mental problems, while holding an object against his head. It is very subtle, but this seems to a bone from one of the bodies – there is a discreet wet sound, as if from flesh, when he picks it up – and judging from his words, as he asks his mother what to do, it is even likely that the bone comes from her. A truly morbid but also poetic scene.
Another communion with the dead happens between Maddox and the dead rapper. Touchingly, she becomes friends with her idol when she grows older, and he comforts her, touching her shoulder after the gruelling removal of her mother’s tumour. After his death, she walks out into the waves, talking to herself, possibly lyrics from his songs but also repeating what he said about being part of something bigger, as if she is continuing his legacy. The scene is accompanied by the score’s most beautiful passage.
The scene where the swimmer’s dead body appears starts out brilliantly: her head is floating towards Trent from behind, with its bleached, patterned hair looking like some kind of weird sea monster. (The director himself has broken down the scene here.) Old has a curiously divided approach to death and violence. On one side, discretion. The stabbing of the rapper happens below the frame and later his dead body is shown with moderation. When Kara on her climb falls off the cliff, her impact against the ground is substituted with the sight of crashing waves, and when Trent goes to look, only the tip of her foot is glimpsed from behind a corner of the cliff. Jarin’s drowned body is seen in the waves but not that clearly. On the other hand, ultra-violence. The psychologist’s rapid series of seizures is terrible to behold. The blood-poisoning of the doctor is shown in excruciating detail. Worst of all is Chrystal’s fate, as the body-obsessed woman dies tangled up in a hideously contorted collection of wrongly attached limbs.
Not everything works. Those last moments of Chrystal inside the cave seem overly sadistic towards the character, and the situation is more grotesque than frightening or emotionally impactful. The earlier scene where she walks around, back stooped, under her tent-like cover-up, wailing about the unfairness of their treatment, shouting for her daughter, is a melodramatic touch that comes across as forced and tone-breaking. The staging of the doctor’s knife attack against Guy seems rather odd (but one has to take into consideration that both are now old and rather infirm). The darkness is hiding a lot, but even in shadows the doctor’s face seems quite untouched despite the decades of subjective time the already middle-aged man have been subjected to.
The lens distortion of his face in this scene is great, however, representing both Guy’s failing eyesight and the soul of his attacker, now a raving lunatic, although his whining confessions evoke pity; the same goes for the fact that he is still fixated on keeping his position as Chief Medical Officer, even very old and trapped on the beach. It is also a nice idea that the central family in this sequence is under attack from both sides, from the other family: Chrystal is throwing stones at the children inside the cave and the doctor is attacking the parents by the open fire with a knife, again using the hand with which he had healed, in earlier times, and hurt so many people. The parallel is crowned by showing both attackers’ dying moments in close-up, eyes wide open.
On a lighter side, absurdity is deeply embedded into the fabric of Old, but there are also moments of undiluted fun: the rapper’s guffaw-inducing artist name is described above, and his exclamation when they discover that the swimmer’s dead body has turned into a skeleton, “can we all agree I didn’t do that”, is a wry comment on his status as a racism-related suspect in her murder. Later, when he talks about her outstanding swimming skills, he describes her as doing backstrokes, so when Jarin excitedly asks “what did you say”, he backtracks, admitting that her swimming style might have been butterfly, comically assuming Jarin’s excitement to be about such a trivial detail. (Jarin had actually latched on to the fact that the couple were both sick.) In moments of stress the doctor gloriously side-tracks himself into film trivia, and his thing about the movie where both Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando appeared (which is The Missouri Breaks) just gets increasingly funny on each viewing, perfectly acted by Rufus Sewell in an odd squeaky voice, and nicely accompanied by his wife’s embarrassed look, pleading the others for indulgence.
Framing story and twist
Would it have been more satisfying to follow in the tracks of “Sandcastle”, the graphic novel Old is based on, and leave the events a mystery? Then it would have been pointless using so much time on the framing story, with all its scenes at the hotel before they are driven to the beach, so that probably must have gone too. We would have been left with the same story span as in the source material, which is entirely confined to the beach. Shyamalan attempts to elaborate on two events in the source: the fact that an observation post is glimpsed on a hill, and a dramatic scene where “José, the hotelier’s son” (an older version of Idlib?), whom we have never seen before in the graphic novel, is storming towards the tourists, but is gunned down by unseen persons. The illnesses are inspired by one of the source characters’ constant nosebleeds, but otherwise there is no sickness pattern. Furthermore, they do not live at a hotel but arrive at the beach in individual cars, the baby does not die, but although it is not entirely clear seems to be the only survivor the next morning.
As for the first part of the framing story, it seems like an overkill amount of foreshadowing that virtually every line of the family conversation in the van has to do with time and ageing. (It might also be grating on an audience likely to know the central gimmick from the trailer). There are some subtle moments of mild estrangement, however: at one point we see the van from behind, horisontally cut in half in an odd way by the framing, and when they arrive, the fact that the name of the resort on the wall is half-hidden by vegetation hints at secrecy and encroaching natural forces – and the company logo looking very similar to the ferns in front of it may be a sinister suggestion of all-pervasive power, spanning both culture and nature. Later, there are some touching, brief glimpses of Maddox feeling alienated from the other children, with a pained and awkward expression, foreshadowing the isolation theme on the beach.
By far the most tantalising moment is the brief passage, heavy in mystery and mood, depicting the rapper and a seductive young woman on a beach – no one has mentioned the secret cove yet so we have no idea where they are, and the couple have not been introduced. Shyamalan also keeps their true relationship and the nature of their interaction a secret, the girl undressing and walking for a swim with a knowing, teasing glance at the man. Foreshadowing later events, however, there is a heavy feeling of detachment, of existence on different wavelengths, since they seldom share a frame and when so, they are far away from each other.
Shyamalan is also coy on another plane: naturally, he wants to preserve the impact and novelty of the big arrival scene of the others on the beach later that day, so before we see this couple he merely adds a mysterious low-angle shot gliding along a vehicle with a row stones in the background. It is only upon subsequent viewings we will understand that this is a fairly firm indicator how and when the rapper and his girl arrived at the beach: the early-day sky and the fact that the vehicle, upon closer inspection, is the same van that drives the others to the beach later that the morning.
This resolves an issue that has caused some confusion: the background for the rapper’s presence on the beach. One might guess the couple had swum there, but the rapper sits in his regular clothes and no swimwear for him is later seen. Being a rich and famous artist, however, it is likely that the hotel has tempted him, too, with a private beach trip, especially since this communion with nature would be attuned to his wish for “a Zen trip”. Some, initially including this author, thought he might have arrived the previous day – late evening and early morning sky looking pretty much alike. (This would have put his ageing within the overall scheme: arriving at the beach at 9 pm and joining the others at 9 am would mean he had aged 24 years, and he seems older the next time we see him, when he also have removed his dark glasses.) It is much darker, however, outside the window of the main family’s hotel room than in the subsequent scene with the rapper, so it is likely that it simply takes place before the others have breakfast. This also explains why the swimmer’s body has not yet decomposed.
SPOILER WARNING – the twist is here revealed.
Towards the end of the film’s main body this author’s enthusiasm during the first viewing was already somewhat flagging, for previously explained reasons. The presence of only two people in the morning, by a new set of actors for Trent and Maddox with whom we have not established a connection, did not help. Then came the twist: persons with various illnesses are lured to the beach, after having been given experimental medicines, to see if they are long-term cured under its accelerated ageing regime, all part of a secret research project by the pharmaceutical company Warren & Warren. This time, they have succeeded splendidly, since Patricia the epileptic did not have a seizure for the equivalent of sixteen years on the beach. (Since she had a seizure at breakfast, she obviously got the medicine after that, or simply a different mixture – the hostess is on the spot, asking if she wants something to drink – and was not necessarily a target guest originally. The fact that the researcher says “the medicine we gave her when she arrived” during the speech is probably an inaccuracy or intentional simplification for his audience.)
The nature of this twist is very different from earlier Shyamalan works with that device. For the first time, the twist is revealed by characters with whom we have formed no emotional connection. All earlier instances have organically grown out of the material, in the sense that we have lived the experience, accompanying prominent characters as they discover the real state of things. The delivery of the Old twist also feels overly similar to one of the many in Shyamalan’s most recent film Glass: the leaders of a secret project give us all the information in the form of a pep talk and status summary, marked by self-righteous arguments about why the project is vitally important, while they address other, subordinate members – this hews very closely to the cafe meeting of the secret anti-superhero society in Glass.
And even in that earlier reveal, there was some sort of emotional connection, since it is presented by the psychiatrist Dr. Staple, a prominent character, however cold and shady she comes across. In Old the talk is given by the Resort Manager, with whom we have been acquainted only in two brief scenes, and another guy who is a total stranger. It just feels like coming from very far left field, and it is not very interestingly filmed either, compared to the elegantly shot Glass scene, with the camera prowling around the room.
With this disconnect during the twist, the film does not seduce us into suspending our disbelief, so it invites more rational scrutiny than usual. It does not take long to decide that the pharmaceutical project is frankly unbelievable. One thing is how its workers, however many lives could be saved through new medicines at the cost of a few individuals, could be persuaded to live with the fact that innocent, healthy children lose their lives along with the research subjects. (In that regard, I think we do see a momentary, tiny darkness in the gaze of the hostess when she spots the children as the main family arrive.) Remember, only one whistleblower could be enough to blow the lid off the scheme.
Furthermore, the heroes point out that they were fetched with a private van – a plane is also mentioned, probably private as well – and the enemy could have made it look like they never left home. This is odd. No one ever mentions to friends and family where they are going? Credit card use is never logged at the airport when they leave? No one is trying to find them after they disappear? Also, they will have been observed by many others, regular, non-target visitors, during their stay, however brief (one day plus one morning), and even though the Resort Manager tells them to keep the beach trip a secret, this is done with no strict admonition, so how could the project be sure that the targets would not blurt out the plan for the day to other guests? (The offer comes at breakfast so there is not that great amount of time to be a blabbermouth though.)
As for the medicines, is only one dosage sufficient to create a healing effect? (If not so, surely there would have been a very limited amount of doses they could have been slipped.) Also, how could the project trust the effect of a medicine achieved under such weird circumstances as the accelerated ageing on the beach? To be sure, it is said that the project is only fast-tracking the medicines into a proper trial, but still this sounds like a problem. Of course the company could have researched this, but how? The project seems rather new. It is also not mentioned how often the beach trials are run, but it is indicated this is the 73rd. They seem ready to start a new trial the next day. (The van driver, however, mentions someone who tried to escape through the coral, but later drowned, “last year”.) On top of all this, the recklessness of the company to start a fantastically illegal scheme with so many potential pitfalls seems rather unbelievable.
On the whole, it is a bit confounding how Shyamalan would have thought this to be an engaging and evocative resolution to the story. As it is, it seems rather a gift to his detractors, who time and again have pointed out his alleged “over-reliance” on twists. In fact, his previous film Glass contained a dizzying amount of successful twists, not to speak of, before that again, the magnificent meta-twist that ends Split. Still, it might be that Shyamalan felt some pressure to preserve this trademark device and this time his quality control went astray.
Approaching things more positively, one could argue that the twist is described so dispassionately that it forms a meaningfully striking contrast to the immediacy, weirdness and emotive happenings on the beach. The tourists are mere pawns in an experiment, with no more emotional investment than towards laboratory rats. This change in tone is abruptly established, right after we have left the drama of the swimming siblings stuck inside a coral reef, with the van driver not showing an iota of empathy for the victims, powerfully demonstrated by a harsh close-up.
It might also be a self-reflexive idea that he is played by the writer-director himself, orchestrating the events that have led to enormous human suffering, for characters he himself created in the script. The greater good of the company’s new medicines would correspond to the greater good of the audience’s film experience. Since the framing story is Shyamalan’s own superstructure to the events of the graphic novel, it is elegant that precisely he should play the courier, transporting the data stemming from the beach and “Sandcastle”, to the research headquarters, his own invention, as well as transferring victims to the beach. It is also amusing that it is precisely his character’s carelessness that becomes the undoing of the whole experiment. On his “plus side” comes the fact that it is his arrival as the driver of the van that seems to distract Trent from opening right away the envelope from Idlib containing the clue to their escape.
The fact that the dying seconds of the film show the camera pointing down into the implacable, featureless ocean might indicate another layer of indifference: in the eyes of the universe we are all laboratory rats, left to ourselves to deal with all kinds of “unfair” accidents and illnesses, randomly foisted upon us. In fact there is curious lack of joy in the whole epilogue, even though Trent and Maddox are saved and Warren & Warren will face justice. The gaze down into the ocean can also be connected to the first seconds – forming a nice closuring echo – where the camera looked in the opposite direction, up into the air, before it latches on to the van (as if drawn by its movement and sound).
It has been noted that the film could well have ended at several points during the denouement. Those moments actually extend this pattern of disconnection and indifference. When the cop is approaching the siblings and Idlib is touching Trent’s cheek, the camera slowly turns away, to look up into the air. When the flashback detailing how Maddox and Trent managed to escape via the coral ends, the camera again glides away from the humans, there in the water, to seek refuge behind a headland, accompanied by ominous music.
The final scene, in the helicopter – signalling how everything basically will be okay, the bad guys will face the music, and further ruminations about the weirdness of their ageing – comes across as oddly tired and superfluous. But the denouement as a whole is not without its arresting moments: both has to do with the hostess, who freezes on the spot, in an interestingly stylised way, first in profile when she hears the escaped siblings announce their names off-screen, and then facing the camera as she understands that everything is lost, with an almost terrifyingly vacant look. It is as if time has stopped for her, commenting upon the film’s temporal issues, and her immobility might be a play on the freeze tag game of the children. The final moments of the last shot of that scene even seems to employ the same slow-motion effect as during the game on the beach.
Violence and racism
Old is in several ways addressing topical concerns, most clearly racism. Once again, the white character of the doctor is most firmly embodying the theme, and his instincts always seem to lean towards violence and paranoia. When he notices that the rapper’s nose is bleeding, his first thought is that Guy might have struck him. As he is voicing his suspicions that the rapper is the most likely perpetrator of the murder of the swimmer, Patricia, the other Black tourist, ruefully says: “I don’t like this dynamic at all.” The doctor had already been impatient towards the van driver, another person of colour, for not helping them carrying stuff. Without forewarning, he slits the rapper’s cheek with a knife, claiming he thought the other was going to hurt him. Later, out of the blue, he accuses Jarin of wanting to steal his wallet, and declares his desire to “punch him in the face”. He cannot let go of the paranoia, as he later follows up, delusionally, with accusing Jarin of having sneaked around in his neighbourhood, while he repeatedly and violently sticks his knife into the sand. (He is also twice in the film addressing Jarin as Jack, as if he is unable to give the Asian-American his full attention.)
His train of thought immediately switches to another track, misogyny – he is clearly the very dominant person of the marriage – callously telling his wife to “put some make-up on your face”. Later, his knife is no longer merely slicing through sand, when he stabs the rapper to death. Again he is delusional, claiming that “the man with the tattoo was gonna steal things from my home.” Sewell’s performance is so intense and honest in these moments, that these aspects do feel illuminating about a certain mind-set, rather than thematic window dressing. (His wife too reeks of entitlement and privilege as she talks about the tragedy of a dead body as an “island issue” they have been so unlucky to be mixed up with.) As a person of colour himself, Shyamalan ought to be in a good position to address these questions.
Old is thus clearly attuned to the reawakened awareness of racism of recent years, but it also accidentally comments on the Covid-19 pandemic. The script was written long before it broke out, but the world “cohort”, uttered by the laboratory people, could well have been sneaked in when the film was shot in the early fall of 2020 at the height of the pandemic. The invisible nature of the enemy, aspects of isolation from other people, the danger others may represent, and the characters’ confusion facing a rapidly escalating, unforeseen event, all speak to our difficult times. And this review succinctly points out: “When one of Old’s characters laments, at one point, that it’s simply not fair that they’ve missed so many milestones in life because of this beach, they’re not wrong. Frankly, after the pandemic year we’ve just been through — and given the looming uncertainty of the future — who can’t relate?”
The comment the twist is making on the pharmaceutical industry, however far-fetched their set-up comes across, is a touchy subject, since it can well be seen by predisposed people to sow doubt about vaccines – not exactly what one needs in the middle of a pandemic. (The company’s name Warren & Warren seems a riff on Johnson & Johnson, one of the vaccine makers.)
As regards the prominent Old idea of characters living in separate worlds, the doctor is again the most pronounced example, at any time liable to careen off into his unhinged routine about that movie with both Nicholson and Brando. The earliest scenes on the beach are studiously ordinary, but their episodic nature, with abrupt lurches from one activity to another, emphasise how various people or factions are indulging in their separate pastimes. Furthermore, the mise-en-scène itself continually strives to visually demonstrate a lack of connection. While Guy and Maddox are talking about the newly discovered rapper, Prisca in the foreground is looking away, preoccupied with Trent at the shoreline. The self-obsessed Chrystal is sunning herself while the children are busy setting up the small tent right behind her.
One late, very good scene is emblematic of this sharing of frame but not the same reality: Chrystal is in extreme close-up in the foreground, lamenting her abandoned adolescent love for someone called Giuseppe – Abbey Lee‘s finest moment in the film – with Maddox as a listener in the background. Here two universes momentarily intersect but Maddox is, at best, only a half-comprehending observer of Chrystal’s fundamentally unknowable, inner turmoil. Characteristically, the scene ends with Chrystal’s plea to be left alone. The contrast between foreground and background, between focus and non-focus among the two, also helps evoke the separation.
After the close-up of Mid-Sized Sedan standing over the dead swimmer, the camera travels along the faces of the others. On one level, this is meant to show them weighing his status as a possible murder suspect, but there is no unity, everyone seems lost in their own thoughts, their one-dimensional exteriors shown to us in an odd parade, helped by the artificial nature of the camera movement. Along the way we linger on the ocean for an unnatural length of time, as if to indicate that the faces too will be equally empty.
Camera movements are time and again instrumental in furthering the all-pervasive estrangement. After they have realised it is impossible to get out again via the slot canyon entrance, they stand in a circle while a pivoting camera capture them one by one, and even in the wide Cinemascope image, they hardly ever share the frame with anyone. Later, the psychologist calls a meeting to get people to come clean with each other to better co-operate, but the camerawork seems to mock her: the scene starts with an overhead shot that implies clarity and overview, but after the camera is lowered to the centre of their circle and embarks on a couple of 360 degree pans, the meeting turns into chaos as the tourists begin to let others in on their troubles, until it ends with Prisca overcome with pain from her rapidly growing tumour.
As the strange events start on the beach, there is more close interaction, but it is almost always an absurd mélange of non-sequiturs as the various tourists, in thrall to their own concerns and obsessions, try to make themselves heard or impose their will. A milder example occurs when the doctor concentrates on his mother who is suddenly ailing, followed by a brief intermezzo where she takes command, revealing that she knows about his mental problems, and then Prisca arrives, almost desperately attempting to pry him away to examine her children. (Her plea is made to seem even more odd, because at that stage we have not seen the ageing effect yet.) At one point the camera even glides down to linger on the doctor’s dog, preoccupied with its own activities, and in later scenes its barking can sometimes be heard intermingling with the frantic conversation among the others – even the dog world making its contribution to the chaos.
This inferno of asides comes to a crescendo during the sequence of Kara giving birth, captured in two long takes lasting a total of approximately three minutes. As the camera is moving along the beach, quite slowly as in defiance of the chaos, and like earlier taking its time to intermittently gaze at the implacable ocean, it is unable to take in all the action – whichever way it turns, it often captures just the aftermath of something, for example Chrystal’s escape attempt from the beach, having abandoned her daughter in panic, or even the birth itself, as well as the baby’s death. All the while, we are treated to various characters doing their thing: Guy and Prisca offering parental advice, Trent’s childish exultations about his new life as a family father, the doctor’s sudden lurches into racism and misogyny, Chrystal’s hysteria, the psychiatrist wailing that everyone ought to sit down and talk things over, and so on.
Old is at its most bizarre and formally inventive when depicting the children’s age transitions, which are almost always shown indirectly, sneaking their way into the film. Shyamalan carefully gives reasons for the children to be away from the others for long enough periods that the adults will not discover they are growing: playing, eating or staying secluded inside an improvised tent. This is often quite subtly conveyed, in off-hand remarks or background talk, which the attentive or revisiting viewer will pick up on.
The first inkling that something is wrong comes when Trent complains that his bathing trunks are too tight. Here we just see part of his body, and his mother seems a bit non-plussed when looking up at him, but she has the sun in her face so she lets the situation go. There was a blinding shot of the sun beating down on the beach just before, as if to emphasise the difficulty of getting a good look.
The second age period: The real audacity comes later. Following other complications, there is a sudden cut to a shot that basically points into empty air for approximately half a minute, while the three children via disembodied, hesitant voices are discussing something to do with them looking different. The effect is extremely weird and disorienting, although the frame is not totally empty: there is a bit of Kara’s head in the foreground (but not including her eye), a section of Trent’s shoulder, and a part of Maddox’s leg. Then, after a mysterious aside with the camera looking up at a hillside where Trent claims to see something shiny, Maddox steps into the shot, letting us see only the lower half of her body and the bikini bottom, which is now very small. (Both this and the next situation belong to the film’s play on off-screen space, or, with all the body parts, perhaps it should be called half-glimpsed inbetween-space…?)
Just afterwards, during the pricelessly confused scene where Trent and Maddox talk to the new couple Jarin and Patricia, where the children insist they are five years younger than they appear, for many shots the closest we come to have a good look at them is seeing the new couple between the head and shoulders of the kids. They also converse in strange, squeaky, too-young voices. Then, through an array of obscuring methods, they are kept hidden from us when their mother arrives, who on top of everything does not recognise her own children. (Poor Jarin and Patricia must believe they are caught in a Candid Camera shoot. Especially the rational Jarin is given a hard time in this film: when he later asks the rapper for his name, as nurses often do when treating people, the answer Mid-Sized Sedan stuns him anew.)
Paired with the unreal, bizarrely disjointed atmosphere, the obscuring of the children brilliantly creates a cinematic equivalent both of their mother’s inability to recognise them, as if they are just blank areas where her kids ought to be, and of the other couple’s disorientation. Or, to put it more simply: the sheer fucked-up nature of the whole situation. These formally odd situations also serve to milden the jolt of the introduction of entirely new sets of actors for the kids’ new age levels.
The third age period: Later, inside the tent, there is a weird over-the-shoulder set-up between two prostrate characters where most of our view is filled by backs and shoulders – the odd emphasis on body parts, unnaturally occupying a large portion of the frame, subtly indicates the fact that their bodies now have grown – allowing room for just part of their faces. Soon, it is revealed that this is Trent and Kara, and we also learn that they have had sex. (This scene starts with a shot of the sun shining through a narrow crack in the tent, as if drawing a connection to the earlier sun shot, which came at the precise time of our first encounter with the ageing process.)
The fourth age period: There is no weird transition for this period, the next morning: we see Maddox sit on the beach in (a very beautiful) long shot, and Trent emerging from a cave. It is notable, however, that there is a kind of “delayed device”. As the twist part of the framing story plays out, they are given a similar visual treatment, where they are held back from full view for a considerable time – but this is part of the gradual unfolding of the denouement, since it turns out they have managed to escape the beach after all. By the way, this is yet another indication of the weakness of the framing story: the holding back comes across as more coy than suspenseful – because who else could it be?
Throughout the time on the beach, there is a constant emphasis on how much and often the children are eating. The van driver indeed states the children as a specific reason for the huge amount of food given to the tourists. There is a sweet moment when Kara is gorging herself on food and smiles mischievously about it, as if much younger – her hunger signals her coming, express pregnancy.
As disjointed as the action on the beach appears, meticulous attention is given to coherence, for example in the mise-en-scène: Maddox discovers the celebrity rapper, but already in the background of a preceding shot we have seen her give pause. These details further the notion that it is a reality we see unfold, the camera capturing whatever lived life that happens to fall within the frame.
Coherence on plot level: Trent remarks that there is no fish in the water at the beach. This lays the foundation for the school of fish surrounding Trent and Maddox after they have emerged from the coral to be a firm signal that they are now safe, since this part of the water is teeming with life. This might also be the reason for the shot the day before, near the hotel, where Trent, out playing with Idlib, looks down at his feet in the water where there are a myriad of tiny fishes. Maybe he was so taken with the sight that when at the beach he got the impulse to look down at his feet again, only to be puzzled the absence of aquatic life. The dead body which immediately comes floating is an ironic and terrifying confirmation.
Coherence in motivation: Why does Mid-Sized Sedan check the covered body of the swimmer when he detects that there is only a skeleton left? When they leave the body earlier, there is a hand sticking out from under the cover. We do not see it, but probably he has spotted something wrong with that hand. So it is not morbid curiosity on his side about how the naked dead body looks. (Again he says “damn”, his standard reaction to weird happenings in this film.) Another instance: the next morning, Maddox and Trent get the idea of decoding Idlib’s last message while they are making sandcastles – one childish activity generates the impulse for another.
Coherence in emotion: When Jarin is found dead in the waves, Kara immediately walks to her deceased baby, which has been wrapped in a cloth. Her real father had already failed her, and now the “substitute father”, the one who took responsibility and helped her with the birth, has gone too, and it seems that it is precisely this loss that makes her turn to the baby. Here she speaks with Trent in tight close-ups, their proximity calling back to their first shots on this age level, inside the tent. When he decides to bury the baby, the tiny body has gone already; there is just sand trickling out of the bundle, as if sand out of an hourglass – everything turns to dust on this beach, an area that is in itself made of sand.
Coherence in objects and geography: Prisca cuts the doctor with a rusty knife, causing blood poisoning. Where did she get it? From the area with the left-behind belongings of earlier victims. This is why the kids had to be there, plot-wise, when Prisca came running to tell them to hide. Another reason for them to be in that spot, is that they soon go hiding in a cave, where they use matches. Where did they get them? From the same spot. We hear Trent happily exclaim something and pick up an object. They must find the matches right there, because the plot cannot have them walk around looking for them, since they have to hide immediately. Without matches, they (and the audience) would not be able to see Chrystal inside the cave. The trajectory of objects are generally awarded careful attention: Guy puts the knife the doctor used to kill Mid-Sized Sedan in a basket, and later he is seen retrieving it from that basket before attacking Guy and Prisca by the fire.
Coherence through echoes: On a higher level, we have already seen how the film’s first and last seconds mirror each other. Furthermore, there are two shots of sunrises, first with the rapper and his girl on the beach, and then Maddox and Trent the next day. The song is sung twice, as well as heard from headphones in the van in the morning, and during the end titles. The shot from inside the van ending with the Resort Manager greeting the main family is almost exactly replicated late in the film with new victims. The composition with the aged Maddox and Trent in the morning with crashing waves in the background that seem too large – possibly the result of a telephoto lens compressing space – is very similar to the first shot on the hotel beach, that too depicting a couple.
Double functions: The shot of the sun beating down is not merely a mood-setting image (really hot at the beach today!) but has an additional function, for a specific reason: to better justify why Prisca does not realise that Trent has grown bigger, because she has the sun in her face. Images packed with several meanings appear not seldom in Old. A shot where the suddenly 11-year-old Trent embraces her is about more than that: she is clearly pushed backwards, unfamiliar with his added weight. Guy looks outright embarrassed when Maddox does the same, because she is now a teenager in full bodily bloom – he is not used to have such a body eagerly pressed against him. Mass scenes often contain local micro-actions that are logical for individual characters, like Maddox being taken aback by Trent’s new look after he has spent time with Kara, away from her.
In Michael Bamberger‘s making-of book on Lady in the Water, “The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale” (New York: Gotham 2006), we learn about the director’s fondness for numbers, and how he loves evaluating and comparing things by assigning number values to various elements. Might this be the reason for the huge occurrences of numbers in certain films?
The above screenshot shows just a selection from Unbreakable, but there are probably even more in Old. Not only does the ageing rate on the beach inspire a fusillade of calculations, as well as statements about length of pregnancies, time for flesh to disappear and bone turn to dust, but Guy likes to throw around statistics from his actuary job. The age of the kids is often stated, Idlib has 42 conch shells, Patricia jokes that her next epilepsy attack will feature a 360 degree head-spin, an incision should be 4-6 inches, the tourists are part of trial 73, Trent believes it requires at least 10 intercourses to make a baby, the children are counting down during their hide-and-seek game.
Shyamalan has always liked overhead shots but it might be the laboratory rat predicament of the tourists that is the reason for their abundance in Old. The above slide show include three such images from the trailer only, and there are approximately a total of ten. Interestingly, one of them comes when the van driver arrives at the secret research facility carrying the data from the trial. Is this now some sign of an impending doom for him and the project?
In Unbreakable the colour purple was closely connected to the dangerous Mr. Glass, and in Old the colour is often associated with the hotel and members of the conspiracy, who like Mr. Glass seem at first to be agents of benevolence. The van driver, the hotel security guards, and the hostess presenting drinks to newcomers wear purple, there are purple flowers in the hotel foyer, the activity plans on the blackboard are crossed out with purple chalk, the antimacassars in the van are purple. Tellingly, there is no purple among the tourists and on the beach, so it seems solely connected to the outside threat.
Comparison with earlier films
Old comes across as a much-improved version of The Happening. Both tell of a bunch of random, regular people trying to figure out and deal with a suddenly insane situation and an invisible, deadly enemy, and Old is not seldom referencing the earlier film, as we shall see later. Whereas The Happening was never able to fully reconcile its absurd and serious aspects – the even earlier Lady in the Water, another work with the meta aspect of a collective figuring things out, is often compartmentalised: scenes with the hero and sea nymph are serious, with the silliness largely assigned to the other tenants of the apartment building – the tone of Old manages to make silly and serious almost constantly co-exist in the same moment, much more confidently and meaningfully. He did the same in The Visit. Another similarity with The Happening is the lack of past trauma among the leads, otherwise so prevalent in Shyamalan.
Old is nevertheless a challenging film. Even with intense familiarity with Shyamalan’s work, this author after a certain point struggled to cope with its sheer number of moving parts and the escalating chaos, and a second viewing was necessary to make things fall into place. Having scrupulously avoided any foreknowledge, I was not even aware of the central ageing gimmick and had to take that in stride as well.
Except for The Visit, the new film also represents something highly unusual for the director: a slow-burn, studiously low-key start, in deep contrast to earlier works marked by dramatic kick-offs. (Even the quiet funeral in The Village is filmed in such an extraordinarily stylised way as to make it immediately arresting, and Lady in the Water starts with a solemn mythology followed by the janitor’s farcical duel with a bug.)
More important, since the director’s three previous works had featured very strong, colourful performances – all four principal characters in The Visit, followed by Betty Buckley, James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy in Split, with the latter two joined by a fabulous Samuel L. Jackson in Glass (with Bruce Willis merely solid) – I was a bit bewildered and disappointed by the relatively one-dimensional gallery in Old, far from “interesting characters” in themselves. Only Rufus Sewell as the doctor had what one would call a “meaty part” but that too came across as without much depth. In retrospect, however, I have come to admire the entire cast, who play to perfection their mildly caricatured figures, each pared down to some basic traits.
Another change of tack: Old is notably more formally adventurous than the almost clinical minimalism and rigour of its immediate predecessors Split and Glass. It has more in common with the one before that again, The Visit, but much more deliberate and controlled than the studiously “accidental” found footage of the earlier film.
When it comes to familiar Shyamalan themes and motifs, Old checks quite a few boxes: bleakness (chaos, murder, and certain death), the presence of children, characters confined to an enclosed space, denial (the doctor about his illness), family, innocence (among the children, also as “adults”), panic attacks (both Mid-Sized Sedan and Chrystal try to flee), rituals (the greetings and serving of drinks at the hotel, the board listing activities at the resort, various standard beach behaviours, the moment of silence and speech after each group of subjects have died), secrets (the children’s secret code, Prisca’s infidelity, the coming divorce kept from the children, the experiment itself), self-reflexivity (the presence of the director as observer and part of the conspiracy), social criticism (the clinging to titles and achievements in the face of the ephemerality of existence), water (vast amounts in the ocean). Old has no supernatural dimension but takes a scientific approach to explaining the ageing phenomenon.
The film cautiously breaks new ground in some areas. Kara’s pregnancy is by necessity a result of sex, an activity never occurring in Shyamalan before, although in Old it is never shown, in stark contrast to the source graphic novel “Sandcastle”, which is almost obsessed by it and contains copious nudity. Speaking of that, the glimpse of the behind of the rapper’s girl going for a swim is the first “conventional” nudity in the Shyamalan filmography. (The shocking scene with the grandmother running around the house naked in The Visit belongs to a different division.)
This article has already proposed Old as an improved The Happening, and accordingly there seem to be quite a few tangible connections. Both films deal with coping and behaviour when regular people are suddenly confronted with imminent death, and there is a lot of discussion and a number of theories are proposed to explain their predicament. Curiously, both films change tack with approximately half an hour left, but while Old is weakening somewhat, the Crazy Lady segment of The Happening is a marked improvement. (That section is analysed in detail here.)
On a more granular level perhaps the most telling connection involves these guys:
The situation in The Happening out in the field has become infamous, with the others hysterically demanding that the hero must find a way to save them from imminent death. At one point he pleads in exasperation: “I need a second, okay! Why can’t anybody give me a goddamn second?” In Old, responding to a similarly enraged demand, the doctor, the self-appointed leader and thus a kind-of counterpart to the hero in the earlier film, stands to the side, seemingly lost in his own world, and in a toneless and resigned voice says, as if to himself: “I will make a decision. Just give me a second.” Given the iconic status of the earlier scene, there is no way this is not a playful intertextual comment, demonstratively performed in exactly the opposite tone of voice and by a character who in the Old scene is precisely not the center of attention. This is possibly Shyamalan baiting people into thinking about his most derided film, while the link invites a comparison whose conclusion ought to be that the tone of the new one is infinitely more assured. It is as if he is saying: “See? I fixed it.”
We have already talked about the ubiquity of numbers in Old, but the character of Guy forms a clear link to John Leguizamo‘s teacher in The Happening, who is aware of the comfort people seek in numbers. Guy likes to rattle off statistics about what percentage of furniture accidents involves coffee tables, that 99.4 percent of holiday deaths have natural causes, in order to comfort the rapper who is under suspicion for murder, and comically exclaims that it is statistically impossible to have two dead bodies on the same beach.
Furthermore, in The Happening the daughter of the Leguizamo character is taken in by the protagonists and calls the heroine “Aunt Alma” – in Old, the two children of Leguizamo’s parallel character, who like him dies during the film, will go on to live with their aunt. “Is this happening” is a rhetorical question in Old that is also posed in the earlier film. The children’s freeze tag game in Old requires them to stiffen in a fixed pose, similar to the victims of The Happening stopping dead in their tracks before killing themselves.
Like Jarin is telling the others how he is going to swim away from the beach, in The Happening another Asian-American character is informing others about an area that means a possible escape from the disaster. Both scenes involve a gathering of listeners, and it is the only scene in Old where people are visually organised like this:
Prisca’s question to Guy, “What book am I reading”, hit this author hard because of the eerie similarity to the question “Which page am I on”, from one of the book-reading girls during the marvellous opening scene in The Happening before her suicide. (Prisca too will die during the film.) Her confusion was genuine; in Old Prisca seems to test Guy (he fails) because in earlier, more loving days he would be well aware of it. (It appears to be Carol Seymour-Jones‘s biography on Sartre and de Beauvoir, A Dangerous Liaison.)
Medicine and illness are also important in The Village and like the environment in that film, the area around the beach in Old is fenced off and designated as a nature preserve. The towering wall of rock lining one side of the beach points back to the many walls and barriers in the earlier film. One of them constitutes the outer perimeter of the nature preserve, and like Ivy climbs that wall, the equally brave and determined Kara does the same in Old:
To Shyamalan connoisseurs, much of the emotional power of the scene where Guy declares his love for Prisca – although he movingly has forgotten the word for “my feelings for you” – springs from the callback to Lucius’s revelation of his love for Ivy during the porch scene in The Village, the one that ends with “And, yes, I will dance with you on our wedding night.” The young Lucius’s eloquence in the scene stands in meaningful contrast with the old Guy’s halting speech. The placement of man and woman is switched around, but in both films they are filmed from behind, facing each other, it is night, and in both works it turns out to be the man’s last words to her – in The Village Lucius will be the victim of a debilitating murder attempt, and in Old Guy dies immediately afterwards:
In a scene in Old, Trent and Kara are playing together with a doll and a robot figurine, with Trent’s parents as a morose audience. This resembles a scene in Unbreakable where the son is playing with his superhero figurines with the parents in the background:
There are some echoes from The Visit too: the characters’ initial giddiness over life at the resort is reminiscent of the mother’s enthusiasm, although much more vulgar, about her cruise in the earlier film. The way the doctor is creeping toward Guy in an attempt to kill him towards the end has a similarity to the grandmother crawling towards the children under the outhouse in The Visit. It is also worth noting that the action in Old takes place in a cove, which is the name of the apartment building in Lady in the Water, as already discussed a related film.
Shyamalan has mentioned three classic films that inspired his own: The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962), about guests at a dinner party who are unable to leave for unexplained reasons, Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971), about two siblings lost in the Australian outback, and Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), about schoolgirls and a teacher who disappear in a mysterious Australian rock formation in 1900, all except one never to be seen again. Only the latter has been examined here, with a few interesting connections.
The girls in Picnic too are driven to the rock collectively, in a wagon. There are a couple of (or at least nearly) full circle camera pans, a device also used in Old. The rock is talked about in a similar way as in Old: “it is a geological marvel”, it has been “waiting a million years – just for us” (in Old, it is pointed out how ancient the place probably is), and when the driver’s clock has stopped (at exactly twelve o’clock) he says, “never stopped before, must be something magnetic”. There is also definitely something wrong with time in Picnic as well, because the girl who is recovered has been stranded in the wild for a week without nearly looking like it.
Old has some weaknesses but when this bold work is firing on all cylinders it operates on a level few other films reach. M. Night Shyamalan remains one of the most original directors working today, creating his art entirely according to his own sensibilities, resulting in four films in a row that reward deep analysis and reveal a sophisticated, inventive grasp of cinematic form.
Addendum: Characters and cast (the twelve on the beach)
The main family
- 1. Prisca Cappa (Vicky Krieps)
- 2. Guy Cappa (Gael Garcia Bernal)
- 3. Maddox Cappa (age 11 Alexa Swinton, age 16 Thomasin McKenzie, adult Embeth Davidtz)
- 4. Trent Cappa (age 6 Nolan River, age 11 Luca Faustino Rodriguez, age 15 Alex Wolff, adult Emun Elliott)
The second family
- 5. Charles, the doctor (Rufus Sewell)
- 6. Chrystal, the doctor’s wife (Abbey Lee)
- 7. Kara, their daughter (age 6 uncredited, but Wikipedia gives her as Kylie Begley, age 11 Mikaya Fisher, age 15 Eliza Scanlen)
- 8. Agnes, Charles’s mother (Kathleen Chalfant)
The third family
The arrivals earlier that morning
- 11. Brendon aka Mid-Sized Sedan, the rapper (Aaron Pierre)
- 12. Unnamed young woman, the rapper’s companion (uncredited)