“They grow up so fast” is a comfortable parental platitude with a terrible truth lurking behind it, like a mask pulled over a grinning skull. By speaking the euphemistic words out loud, you acknowledge the bitter ephemerality of life – the fact that before you know it, your adorable children will be adults with thinning hair and flabby bellies, who are just a step behind into oblivion. rages. This grim reality looms large as a blazing sun zon Old, the new supernatural thriller written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The film is largely set on a remote, abnormal stretch of sand and water where everyone ages in time-lapse rate. The film has flashes of awkwardness that should be familiar to those who have previously stepped into the Twilight Zone of the creator’s imagination. But Old is also, at its most intense moments, one of his most genuinely disturbing visions: a horror film about that most universal horror, inescapable mortality.
In his last photo, the slightly unfairly mocked GlassShyamalan meditated earnestly, eccentrically on the mythos of comic books. This time he found inspiration in a real comic: the French graphic novel sandcastle, from which he takes a basic plot, but no stylistic strategy. (The lush greens and shimmering crystal blues are a far cry from the stark black-and-white images of Frederik Peeters’ artwork.) Source material aside, the film feels quintessentially Shyamalan from the jump, perhaps especially in the hiccups. Old gets off to a bumpy start, with a series of awkwardly explanatory scenes where Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Phantom wire‘s Vicky Krieps), travel 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 says to her daughter. And then, in the first case of ominous foreshadowing, “Can’t wait to hear it when you’re older.”
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In the next two decades The Sixth Sense made him a household name, Shyamalan hasn’t improved much in dialogue writing. His characters still speak a stilted language of blunt emotional statements and corny one-liners, which at times sound like aliens approaching human interaction. But in Old, the anti-naturalistic clatter of the exchanges eventually begins to add to the overall nightmarish atmosphere of Shyamalan’s screenplay. At the manager’s suggestion, the family leaves the site for a private swim on the other side of the island and joins a small group of fellow guests, including a racist surgeon (Rufus Sewell), his wonderful wife (Abbey Lee), their classmate. school-age daughter (Kylie Begley), a SoundCloud rapper (Aaron Pierre), and a few others. “Something is happening to time on this beach,” one of them concludes vaguely, late, long after the adults start getting wrinkles and their kids race to puberty at world record speed.
This is about as close to pure allegory as Shyamalan ever strayed. Its shrivelling beach is nothing short of life itself as a physical space, with every milestone and humiliation of the aging process crammed into a single, horribly condensed day. As symbolic as this premise may be, the film creates several visceral, diabolical dilemmas: emergency surgery is complicated by the fact that wounds close in seconds, while the onset of dementia is horribly accelerated, a running gag about a film can character don’t remember it quickly stroking into sheer hostile confusion. The film’s centerpiece, shot in a sickeningly long shot that floats back and forth across the sand, grotesquely exaggerates the ordinary mindfuck of parents passing the torch of parenthood. Of OldShyamalan puts a fantastic twist on the subjective brevity of youth; in this case it’s not just appear like yesterday the kids were just kids. But he also generously acknowledges the cognitive dissonance of growing up, a child’s own shock at the new “colors,” as Maddox puts it, blooming in their brains.
Visually, it’s a tour de force, even by the standards of a director who finds inventive angles to the action in nearly all of his films, from the grand to the silly to the wildly silly. The camera pans and lurks and looms, amplifying the seasick disorientation. This is the third movie Shyamalan has made with Mike Gioulakis, who are Divide and Glass. Is there a cameraman nowadays who gets more threat from composition alone? Gioulakis sometimes keeps the threat just below or outside the frame, teasing us with what is unseen. He understands his role in directing (and limiting) an audience’s perspective—a key tenet of Shyamalan’s work, heavy on deception and delayed disclosure. Old‘s illusions are more analog than digital: while the film uses variably convincing makeup effects (and a little creepy CGI), it relies just as much on good casting. Playing the children’s prematurely advanced versions, Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie have a somewhat timeless quality to them; they convince teens and older people alike that they are quickly becoming.
In a Shyamalan movie, madness is always waiting at the gates and fear threatens to overthrow. Depending on who you ask, this is a major flaw in his work or part of his quirky charm. Anyway, there are times when Old‘s defense is violated; a bit of body horror with dislocated bones borders on absurdist slapstick, maybe on purpose. Less forgivably, the final passage of the film is too neat, in a distinctly Hollywood way. It lacks the more haunting fatalism of the original comic, which knew there was only one sensible way to end this story. Yet the power of conceit lingers, somehow heightened by the impression that Shyamalan, a middle-aged man with three daughters, is casting out his own fears, though of course they belong to us and everyone else’s too. Old not only confirms his talent for sending a shiver down the collective spine of the movie audience. It also proves that this craftsman of multiplex wizards knows a thing or two about the human condition, even if the basics of human conversation continue to elude him.
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