What happens if you visited a secluded beach and then discovered that you were not only stranded there, but you were aging at an unnaturally fast rate?
In M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, based on the graphic novel Sandcastles by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederick Peters, this is the fate that befalls three different groups of people. They’re all guests at the Anamika Resort, a gorgeous all-inclusive resort in an unnamed tropical destination; it’s the kind of place that offers customized complimentary drinks upon arrival and chauffeured drivers to private beaches on a gated nature reserve. Of course, there’s far more going on than meets the eye.
Old doesn’t waste much time on exposition before arriving at the cursed beach. The film opens on a nuclear family – Guy (Gael García Bernal), Prisca (Vicky Krieps), 11 year old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six year old Trent (Nolan River) – as they arrive at the resort. It’s immediately evident that there’s tension between the adults, which is confirmed that night when they bicker about their impending separation as the kids listen in the other room.
The next morning the family is invited by the Resort Manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) on a special day trip, along with another family consisting of doctor Charles (Rufus Sewell), his much younger wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their six year old daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey) and Charles’ elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant).
Later, after a body has washed ashore, another pair – mixed-race couple Jarin (Ken Jeong) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) – arrive. Together with incognito rapper Mid-Size Sedan (Aaron Pierre), there’s eleven people stranded on the beach. It doesn’t take long for the motley group to discover that there’s something off about the scenic location, including the fact that the bluffs they passed through to reach the beach prevents them from escaping, leaving anyone who tries unconscious.
The premise is high-concept and, given Shyamalan’s early-career penchant for twists, audiences may be wary of having the rug pulled out from under them. One of Old’s best creative decisions is to keep the focus on the beach with the characters, effectively stranding the audience with the group in order to ratchet up the paranoia and desperation. Although the film barely takes place over the course of a day, there is a surprising ebb and flow as characters panic, react and even make peace with their situation.
This proves slightly more challenging with the kids, who age an entire lifetime over the duration of the film. Each of the three children are played by multiple actors (Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenie and Eliza Scanlen play Trent, Maddox and Kara as teens/early adults) and the film gets some interesting mileage out of their struggle to develop at the same intellectual and emotional rate as their physical bodies. This results in one of the most upsetting sequences in the film as the young children speed through puberty to disastrous results.
The mental vs physical disconnect for characters does unfortunately result in some flat characterization. Few of the characters in the film can be described as fully fleshed out, though the relationship arc for Prisca and Guy, who are forced to reconcile the events that led to their failed marriage, results in the film’s most significant emotional pay-off. Other characters, such as Charles, Chrystal and Mid-Size Sedan, barely register as anything other than archetypes, albeit they are frequently entertaining and/or instrumental players in many of the events that unfold.
Where Old finds its greatest success is in the horrors of time as a weapon. There is plenty of conflict among the group, including (principally) Charles’ rapidly declining cognitive abilities and obvious racism, which leads to some really great moments of violence. Shyamalan delights in finding creative ways to use the accelerated time to punish characters, as wounds immediately scar over, tumours grow preternaturally fast and infections take hold in seconds. One body horror sequence involving broken bones is a strong contender for best death of the year.
As with all things Shyamalan, there will be dissent. In addition to making his now obligatory cameo in an integral role, some viewers will find the way the filmmaker shoots the film (along with director of photography Mike Gioulakis) confronting. While the slow oscillating pans away from the action to connote the passing of time is effective, the choppy, off-kilter framing of characters’ faces and the use of discomforting close-up will prove more controversial. The result is an occasionally experimental feel that contradicts the typical visual aesthetics of big budget Hollywood films; it won’t resonate with everyone.
The Bottom Line: While many of the characters are underdeveloped and the visual aesthetic will be off-putting to some, Old nonetheless features an exciting, unorthodox premise and delivers some exceptionally gruesome and creatively horrific set pieces. Like most Shyamalan films, this will be divisive. 3/5
Old is in theatres July 23