There is no denying the allegorical overtones of this superior thriller from M. Night Shyamalan. Adapted from the graphic novel Sandcastle, created by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters, Old speaks to a post-pandemic cinema audience in very specific ways. Featuring a plethora of archetypes gathered together in an idyllic location, it is carried along by an endless amount of emotional baggage.
Details are drip fed, obstacles established and a unique internal logic begins to be unpacked. Impenetrable canyons, razor sharp rock faces and an inherent claustrophobia begin to take its toil as tempers fray. This masterful approach to pacing draws audiences in, gets them comfortable then puts them in free fall. Harking back to The Twilight Zone and implementing elements of anthology horror, Old is a slow burn campfire fable with flashes of horror.
Over time it becomes clear that the isolated resort has some dark secrets, as things begin unravelling. This is where the revered director of The Sixth Sense, The Village and Signs comes into his own subverting expectations. Using simple camera movements, subtle changes of focus and selective set pieces Old begins gaining momentum. Audiences are invited into intimate moments, share private conversations and observe these flawed people in situ.
There are no weak links in the ensemble cast, while Gael Garcia Bernal, Abbey Lee and Rufus Sewell offer up the most complex character work. Fluctuating feelings of parental duty, reasoned logic and unhinged chaos allow each actor to bring something fresh to the table. Alongside that, contemporary issues are brought front and centre, as their all too human insecurities are dragged into the light. Throughout these ever increasing narrative twists, cinematographer Mike Gioulakis ensures audiences are kept on edge. Employing voyeuristic tracking shots, intrusive close ups and a Picnic At Hanging Rock vibe, his camerawork only adds to the uncertainty.
As the film progresses, M. Night Shyamalan exploits this predicament and continues to crank up the tension, as things take an increasingly nasty turn. Production designer Naaman Marshall, who worked on Servant, peppers the cove with visual clues which tie in with verbal Easter eggs. Dark caves tempt in the unwary and ill prepared, as unpleasant things linger in the shadows. There are some off hand film references which are inherently thematic, while others are more abstract in intention.
As the repercussions of their situation become more apparent, Old morphs into a horror story with malevolent undertones. Grotesque encounters, thought provoking segues and heart breaking pathos often going hand in hand. Over time characters change, opinions alter and resignation gives way to a sense of peace.
It is this perpetually shifting tone which ensures Old never feels pedestrian. As the days pass and radical transformations take place, this film becomes more poignant and less traditional. Tragedies feel organic, emotional outbursts earned and resolution more finite. It demonstrates a maturity in the work which never panders to mainstream tastes. This film maker’s tools may have remained the same, yet on this occasion feel more refined.
Thematically family comes through as the strongest defining factor. Beautifully framed beach shots depict children playing as parents look on. This is when the film feels most at peace, savouring memories shaped around a single universal truth. In those moments innocence seems eternal, possibilities endless and cynicism an abstract concept for others to concern themselves with. That these opening scenes intentionally foreshadow the drama which unfolds, is guaranteed to catch some off guard.
Film fans have been familiar with the work of M. Night Shyamalan for decades, but Old feels different. This is more personal, more passionate and closer to home on a multitude of levels. Some might highlight the fact this is just an adaptation, but regardless of public opinion Old still has his fingerprints all over it. That ability to tap into our frailties, dissect our fears and leave us emotionally vulnerable signifies the presence of only one director.
In a year which has forced many people to re-examine their priorities, re-evaluate their needs and offered up endless amounts of time; Old feels on point. Over the last eighteen months everyone has missed family. Connections have been lost, loved ones have passed away and people have gotten older. M. Night Shymalan gets to the heart of that effortlessly by asking difficult questions.
Put simply, Old distils the human life cycle down into one unique cinematic experience. One that will cause arguments, promote debates and lead to further discussions. Something which confirms M. Night Shyamalan remains a force to be reckoned with.