‘Old’ Review: Shyamalan Horror Plays into Some of His Best Weaknesses

A holidaying family find themselves stuck on a beach that they find themselves unable to leave. Trapped with another family, a couple, a cagey man, and a dead body, they soon find that the beach is somehow making them age rapidly. Tensions rise as the hours and years tick away and to realise the horrific implications of their situation.

Shyamalan is always best when tackling a simple premise. He has major exposition issues and so does his best when there’s little story to tell so he can focus on atmosphere and tense sequences. It’s remarkable, therefore, just how much information he feels he needs to relay in this fairly straightforward films. Characters are desperate to relay information about their background, as if Shyamalan drafted detailed character sheets but then decided it was all too good to not include. Exposition is clumsily and sometimes bafflingly relayed, drawing huge attention to his inability to write dialogue and characters that aren’t hilariously unnatural. Character’s are so aware of their plot utility that the film approaches the underwhelming self-awareness of Lady in the Water.

It’s hard to say if Shyamalan wrote this as a comedy. The long stretches of fairly dull inaction suggest that this was, for the most part, intended earnestly. But the hilariously awkward dialogue, the over-the-top performances and deliberately obtuse cinematography surely couldn’t have been done without realising the result is often hilarious. Such is the enigma of Shyamalan. The effect though is that the first half of the film is something of a delight. Shyamalan likes to get in very close to his actors as they make fools of themselves (think of Mark Wahlberg in The Happening) and he has a very talented cast going full ham for him in Old. There are no sleepy Bruce Willis’ to bring down the energy during the first half.

Unfortunately after a dramatic midpoint moment the film becomes rather dull. The film runs out of inventive things to do with its premise, character actions become inexplicable, and even the death scenes become very anticlimactic. It stops trying to shock and surprise the audience, and where there is no effort there can be no true failure to delight the crowd. Things do pick up near the climax though and even become somewhat interesting as the film pivots towards its point. But there’s no time to develop a theme now, so the film ties off it’s lose ends rather joylessly and the affair is brought to a close without ceremony.

Will this therefore rank amongst the more enjoyable Shyamalan films? It is, firstly, a shame to note that this cannot in any serious be considered to be a legitimately good film. The characters are far too flat, the scares and thrills too intermittent, the theme too insubstantial (and incidental) and the whole thing just too silly to be taken very seriously. Some things work as they should. Gael Garcia Banal finds the humanity in his character, and some of the deaths are fairly upsetting and the initial premise does have dramatic promise (see Interstellar for proof). As a so-bad-it’s-good film, it’s not up there with The Happening which remains Shyamalan’s funniest film, but it does enough wrong and is strange enough to keep the attention.

Shyamalan is a wonderful argument against auteur theory. He is clearly an excellent ideas man who can produce an excellent story for a film. But he needs a screenwriter and a director to really craft a coherent vision out of these concepts. Old is one of the best films he has made in a number of years, but what is always so dispiriting about a Shyamalan film is the near endless potential to have been better.

Two Stars

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