Just as it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken, it takes a smart filmmaker to make a stupid movie, which I mean in the best possible way. Science-fiction films, once a cinematic counterpart to pulp fiction, are today often big-budget, overproduced spectacles that substitute grandiosity for imagination. M.?Night Shyamalan’s new film, “Old” (which opens in theatres on Friday), is different. His frequent artistic pitfall is complication—the burdening of stories with extravagant yet undeveloped byways in order to endow them with ostensible significance and to stoke exaggerated effects. With “Old,” facing the constraints of filming during the pandemic—on a project that he’d nonetheless planned before it—Shyamalan has created a splendid throwback of a science-fiction thriller that develops a simple idea with stark vigor and conveys the straight-faced glee of realizing the straightforward logic of its enticing absurdity.
The movie, based on the graphic novel “Sandcastle,” by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, is centered on a tropical beach resort in an unnamed country. (Filming was done in the Dominican Republic.) There, the Capa family—a near-middle-aged couple, Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and Guy (Gael García Bernal), their eleven-year-old daughter, Maddox (Alexa Swinton), and their six-year-old son, Trent (Nolan River)—arrives for a vacation in a state of emotional stress and stifled conflict that’s already on view in a van ride on a road lined with palm trees. At the gleaming hotel, the family is met by an obsequious manager (Gustaf Hammarsten), who, backed by a line of smiling staffers, plies the parents with cocktails from a prompt server named Madrid (Francesca Eastwood). The attention is too great, the welcome suspiciously wrong—it’s obvious to viewers, if not to the Capas, that something is amiss.
Trent, a quirkily earnest and precocious kid who’s in the habit of asking adults their names and “occupations,” quickly befriends another boy in the lobby. His name is Idlib (Kailen Jude), and he’s the manager’s lonely nephew, whose furtive solitude is also an evident warning sign. Prisca and Guy seem obliviously delighted with the luxury, but they’re also distracted by their troubles: the vacation is something of a last hurrah, because they’re on the verge of splitting up. (There’s also something up with Prisca’s health that they haven’t told the children.) The emotional shadows are dispelled when the manager offers the family a day trip to a secluded, secret beach—a place that he claims few guests get to see. Yet they’re joined by another family in the van that takes them there—a high-powered cardiothoracic surgeon named Charles (Rufus Sewell), his wife, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), her mother (Kathleen Chalfant), and their young daughter, Kara (Kylie Begley). (The van’s driver is played by Shyamalan himself.)
There’s a long and eerie walk from the drop-off spot through a grotto to the beach, which is indeed splendid. But then other people turn up, including a psychologist named Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who has severe epilepsy; her partner, Jarin (Ken Leung), who is a nurse; and also a well-known rapper called Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre). Then a corpse turns up, and then rusted-out cutlery that evokes the visits of other, earlier guests. Later, a few other odd events introduce the movie’s key idea: suddenly, the children start growing up very quickly. In a few hours, Trent looks like a big kid of eleven and Maddox looks like a high-school student. Then the adults start aging rapidly, too, and the panic that sets in is amplified when Charles gets hold of a knife, in a “Lord of the Flies”-like power trip, and when the group starts to experience strange, accelerated medical symptoms.
Shyamalan takes conspicuous pleasure in cannily graphic visual compositions, emphasizing significant details without isolating them from the film’s keenly observed settings, which evoke troubled states of mind in a jolting glance. (His own enthusiastic attentions in imagining and crafting the movie’s elements are infectious, and the movie is as much fun to recall as it is to watch.) The timing of reveals, the use of the soundtrack to cue offscreen events, and the deployment of basic effects to conjure inner experience express his delight in primal cinematic power. Shyamalan’s simplest and best coup de cinéma is his depiction of children aging years in the span of mere hours. What he does is change the casting, from one shot to the next—older versions of the kids are played by different actors (Thomasin McKenzie as the older Maddox, Mikaya Fisher and Eliza Scanlen as older versions of Kara, and Luca Faustino Rodriguez and Alex Wolff as growing Trents). The adults age, too, and the visual effects to show it are matched by the emotional effects of encroaching mortality. There’s some just-short-of-gore medical fantasy that veers from the simple wonder of cutaneous special effects to the macabrely skeletal to the over-the-top surgical. There’s the calamity of mental illness and an ugly element of racism that goes with it. There’s the grim realization that the beach’s supernatural powers are no accident but part of a scheme, and, as the aging process and its related agonies begin to take their toll, there are practical efforts to organize defense and resistance when the sense of a large-scale dirty trick takes hold among the survivors.
The working out of the plot and the inevitable then-there-were-none-like attrition of the group brought to and trapped on the private beach lead to some coy narrative trickery, and also to some ultimate twists that are both logical and ridiculous. “Old” takes place in a dramatic bubble that, if it’s poked a touch too hard, will quickly pop, but while it’s afloat it’s both iridescent and melancholy. The modes of loss that Shyamalan dramatizes range from the confusion of sudden adolescence and the anguish of onrushing decrepitude and death to the merely uncanny sense that unexpected pleasures are too good to be true. The economy of the premise leads Shyamalan (whose own role in the film proves exuberantly droll) to unleash images of a simple but extreme expressivity, culminating in one that I’ll be thinking about for a while—a tracking shot, on the beach, that sticks with the action at times and departs from it at others, and that, in its evocation of time in motion, reminds me of the inspirations of a modernist master of visualized time, Alain Resnais. Shyamalan reaches such a peak only once in the film, but it’s a brief high that few filmmakers ever even approach.
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