Everyone likes to talk about the big twist at the end of a M. Night Shyamalan movie: Was it good for you? Did you see it coming? Did it turn the rest of the movie into nonsense? (In some Shyamalan films, there’s no need for a spin on that.) But for all the attention given to Shyamalan’s trademark teasing grand finales, it’s the little twists and turns in his films — the twists that happen along the way — that can determine whether the film is in matter is spinning a yarn worth telling or just spinning its wheels.
In “Old,” Shyamalan’s latest is-it-smart-or-just-stupid-or-is-it-both? slow-burn creepshow, there’s a moment you either pass by or not. Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are vacationing at a swanky tropical island resort with their two children, 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River). There’s a bit of drama the kids don’t know about; their parents are about to split up and Prisca has had a health scare. Nevertheless, the couple puts on a good face and they accept an offer from the unctuous Euro resort manager (Gustav Hammarstsen) to take a day trip to a special beach tucked behind a spectacular rocky cliff on the other side of the island. (The van driver is played by Shyamalan, who is now 50. For what it’s worth, he looks remarkably young.)
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On the beach, they are joined by a handful of other hotel guests, and then bizarre things start to happen. The body of a naked swimmer lies dead in the water. Anyone standing in the adjacent gorge turns black. Oh, and the two kids suddenly look a lot older – they’re 16 and 11 now.
What is happening? The beach has a mysterious quality that ages anyone who sits on it. You get a year older every half hour. It is most noticeable in the children, but after a while the small tumor discovered in Prisca’s abdomen is mentioned. It was three inches; now it’s the size of a golf ball – and then, minutes later, it’s the size of a grapefruit. (It grows just as fast as she gets older.) So what happens? Charles (Rufus Sewell), an eccentrically intense and babbling doctor, decides to operate – right there on the beach, without anesthesia. (It turns out that an incision heals instantly.) Boom! – The tumor is out, just like that. But since audiences are still taking in the movie’s premise – that just about everyone on the beach will be going to the grave in 24 hours – the fact that this makeshift operation is just kind of…happens, because Shyamalan thought it would be a cool idea might linger in your movie theater. It’s a more imaginative than logical twist, but Shyamalan doesn’t seem to care. He holds your attention!
“Old”, like most Shyamalan movies, has a catchy hook and some elegant filmmaking. But instead of working out his premise in an insidious and powerful way, the writer-director keeps risking everything. That nude swimmer was the lover of a famous rapper named Mid-Size Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who doesn’t waste Charles the surgeon’s time accusing him of murder. The film urges us to think this is a racist idea, but is not above exploiting it for suspense. And why is the rapper’s nose bleeding? Charles and his low-maintenance wife, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), have an 11-year-old daughter of their own, Kara (Mikaya Fisher), and it wasn’t long before she and Trent, who are now teenagers, dated and she got pregnant. . And where are Guy and Prisca in all this? Strangely enough, they don’t look older. There are references to wrinkles, and after a while we see a few, but essentially these two – and the other adults – just remain the people they were, which seems extremely odd in a film that goes beyond such dramatic developments.
Pulling out a thriller can make you sound like one of those people Hitchcock referred to with weary futility as “the plausibility” (as if plausibility was all that mattered to them). But ‘Old’, even once you accept where it’s going, lacks form and consistency. It has a compelling, deviant visual style, with the camera hinting at things just out of sight, but the characters continuing to explain who they are in cliché psychotherapeutic sound bites; sometimes the movie threatens to turn into the “Twilight Zone” version of a 12-step meeting. The characters are stuck on that beach and Shyamalan creates a convincing claustrophobia, but part of it is that you wish most of them were better company.
A corpse decays to bone within half an hour. The adults all age with barely visible steps. Tellingly, every family has a disease – but some are physical, some mental. (Charles the Surgeon is a main character who, for some godforsaken reason, keeps wondering which movie Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando were in. It was “The Missouri Breaks,” for anyone who played the movie “Jeopardy.”) One character ends with a mass of twisted limbs like something out of a movie about demonic possession. Another climbs the vertical rock face to escape, then falls deadly asleep during the climb. A few of these issues come into play with the big twist, making mean characters look equally oddly good-natured and then villainous again. More than ever, though, the twist in a Shyamalan movie begs the question: was it worth sitting through the entire movie? this one? Or is that feeling getting old?
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