Old (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Surely no director has cut his cloth according to his means more than M. Night Shyamalen. After a series of big-budget failures, he returned with a series of low-budget numbers like The Visit (2015) and Split (2016) with a couple of forays into television to keep his hand in. And although his movies sometimes don’t work, usually from over-ambition, he is still a brand name and as a triple-hyphenate one of the few working directors to completely control his output.

So the starting point is you don’t know what you’re going to get, except there will be twists and occasional shocks along the way. Even the Glass films aren’t a trilogy in the accepted sense of the word. 

Old is a neat idea. A group of strangers on vacation end up on a strange beach where time moves along at quite a clip and they can’t escape. Most of the action involves the characters responding to one calamity after another and despite a couple of gruesome moments Shyamalan seems intent on swapping jump-out-of-your-seat moments for a continual slow burn. He takes the disaster trope of who’s gonna die next – the bad old guy or the cute younger person – and inverts it until nothing makes any sense except impending apocalypse, at least for all stranded in this apparent paradise.

Speeded-up life makes for speeded-up dread. While wounds heal in seconds and pregnancy might last, oh, a half hour or so, the malfunctioning body malfunctions at lightspeed.

The great thing about Shyamalan is he is a writer first so the characters here are all very well drawn. He gives a geeky kid the geekiest of all character traits, going up to everyone he meets to ask their name and job. But it’s an ensemble picture so nobody is more important than anybody else. And the characters bring along a hamper full of tensions – there’s an epileptic, a couple on the verge of divorce, a doctor on the verge of a breakdown. He also has a distinctive visual style, preferring to track the camera from one character to another rather than using cuts.

It slightly runs out of steam as the body count mounts and it might have been an idea to introduce the shock ending – which asks significant questions about the direction society is heading – a bit sooner

There’s a solid cast, good actors rather than A-list stars, a bundle of whom are best-known for television. Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004) takes pole position in the credits, supported by Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle television series, 2015-2019), Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps (Das Boot, 2018- 2020), Ken Leung (Lost, 2008-2010), and Abbey Lee (Lux Aeterna, 2019).  Scions of Hollywood royalty get a leg-up here – Francesca Eastwood being the daughter of Clint and Alexa Swinton cousin to Tilda – and there are cameos from the likes of Embeth Davidtz (Schindler’s List, 1993)

Otherwise it’s a decent addition to the Shyamalen oeuvre, enough at least to keep him chugging along until he gets the next big idea or budget. While the chances of him alighting on another Sixth Sense (1999) or Unbreakable (2000) might appear remote bear in mind the guy has barely passed 50, an age when top directors are just coming into their prime – Hitchcock was a few years older when he hit the hot streak of Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest.

There’s a fair chance the ending is uncomfortably close to science fact rather than fiction and if Shyamalan can activate social media along those lines the picture could build up enough of a head of steam to bring the director back into the big-budget Hollywood fold or ensure at least that he is never cast aside.

Saw this at the cinema as part of my Monday double bill. – but on the previous week to Suicide Squad/Jungle Cruise.