M. Night Shyamalan knows you’re thinking: Wait for it. And, Everything is a clue. He knows that, ever since The Sixth Sense, with its late-stage, near-spontaneous clicking into place of suggestions and hints many viewers didn’t even know they were meant to be looking out for, audiences have watched his work with an eye verging on suspicion. And we’re all so busy looking for the catch that we sometimes overlook the more enduring, sometimes beautiful, often silly, not-infrequently satisfying pleasures he brandishes right in front of our faces — pleasures that include his continually impressive hand, alongside his estimable collaborators, as a stylist and technician. He knows that he’s contemporary American movie-going’s answer to O. Henry, a name synonymous with “twist,” if only because of our own, enduring expectations.
Granted, Shyamalan has also persisted in leaning into the idea. Surely he knows that this has set up some of his work to fail among a clue-hungry audience, making us look for twists and last-minute dashes of clarity where what his work means to offer is something more metaphysical, as in Signs, or where the endgame can’t quite withstand the pressure of having to cleverly sweep the rug from beneath our feet, as in The Happening or The Village — two maligned movies which, whatever their faults, are parables hiding in plain sight, more notable for what they’re trying to say than for what they mean to withhold, even as in classic Shyamalan style, plenty gets withheld until the last minute.
On the surface, it’s a little reminiscent of the problem that Hitchcock’s Psycho still faces, with its long-beleaguered ending — its late drift into explanatory psychobabble feeling incommensurate, for some, with everything that came before. You simply cannot explain away the inexplicable, the horrific, the outright weird. The difference is that Psycho’s power is in exactly its willingness to illustrate that gap by risking our dissatisfaction: The ending doesn’t really match up with the sublime avenues of horror leading up to it, which ultimately becomes a failure, not of the movie, but of the people within it, trying to make sense of nonsense in ways that feel unasked-for, almost intrusive.
Shyamalan’s films have a related but different problem: Everything leading up to their endings seems predicated on the promise of explanation. Sit around, wait awhile; it’ll all make sense-ish eventually. Or, if you choose, watch with magnifying glass in hand, trying to get a step ahead of the movie, as Sherlock might.
One of the funny things about Old, Shyamalan’s new movie, is that, for all its mysteries and their conclusory (and not very satisfying) explanations, the real meat of the endeavor is devoted to the fairly obvious. A Thing is happening; watching people deal with that Thing is, more-so than any explanation for why it’s happening, what the movie is about. The eventual explanations are extraordinarily secondary; you could lop them off of the movie and arrive at a project whose prevailing “message” is perhaps muddled, but whose effects and main ideas aren’t, or at least, not really. In the first place, what the movie is about largely traffics in the obvious — starting with the tone set by its title, Old, and the poster, in which that word lingers menacingly over a woman’s foot that’s being rendered skeletal before our eyes, as if the beachy shores on which the woman appears were some sort of death-ray vision.
Maybe they are! That would be pretty corny. But corniness is next to godliness in the world of Shyamalan, and Old — with its overt dialogue, its obviousness at every turn, its overly-neat echoing in characters’ backstories and occupations — is better, not worse, for laying almost all of its cards on the table, practically in full view from the start. The movie stars Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps, as Prisca, a museum curator, and her husband, Guy, an actuary for an insurance company, is played by Gael García Bernal. A married couple that seem to be on the outs (or at least on the verge), they decide to take the kids on an exotic weekend getaway. Fast-forward — past the hushed arguments between Prisca and Guy; past the random oddities and light catastrophes happening at the resort; all the tidbits of maybe-relevant, maybe-not information that leak out with perverse frequency — to the hotel manager offering them a sweet deal: Access to a secret beach on a nature preserve, only a short ride away — an offer extended to only his favorite guests, of course.
So it begins. For this to be the only family given such an offer would be too good to be true; other families have also, apparently, been invited. A doctor (Rufus Sewell) and his modelesque younger wife (Abbey Lee), both of them vain, though in distinct ways, plus his mother and their daughter; a psychiatrist named Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and her husband, Jarin (Ken Leung), who’s a nurse. Them, plus a beach straggler that they all only notice after the fact. Make that two stragglers. One, we learn, is a dead body.
Old may be an adaptation of the graphic novel Sandcastle, by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, but, top to bottom, it has the look and feel and interests of a Shyamalan affair. It is equal parts childlike and mature, swaggering in the sweep in and movement of its spanning, panning, pivoting camera, accomplished in the way it weaves these peoples’ lives together into one gnarled and despairing fabric — deeply silly, yet, as it wears on, increasingly thoughtful, occasionally even dark for its willingness to be funny. There’s really little one can say about the majority of the plot that can’t be summed up in the title. What’s luminous and effective are the psychological demands that arise in the process. This is what’s useful about the obviousness. Shyamalan’s willingness to let the audience be a bit ahead of his characters plants questions in our minds that the characters don’t yet realize are imminent. The brittle and overstated attention to everyone’s occupations feels like the setup for an overly dense and unfunny joke, at worst, and a useful parable at best.
Old doesn’t sink to the lows of the former; if it doesn’t reach the highs of the latter, that may be because Shyamalan’s got other things on his mind — things neatly summed up in a late shot, in the movie, of Shyamalan looking down on the beach through a directorly scope, watching all the little ant-people down there making a mess of themselves, trying to survive. Old isn’t trying to be fashionable, low-fi, artisanal horror of the kind that seems to be setting the tone for the genre in the indie world. This is, instead, a credibly old-fashioned movie in some ways, a creature feature with something more diffuse than a “creature,” per se, a monster movie in which the monster is an unlucky pairing of longitude and latitude.
That is: until the grimness really gets going, and the body count rises, and we get neat kills (I’m thinking, in particular, of a brutish, almost unfair scene in a cave) and sweet bits of body horror. What body horror means, for a movie like this, is best left to the viewer to see for themselves. I think it’s ultimately worth it. Old is goofy in all the right places (such as a cut to a couple — in particular to a view of someone’s belly — that made me laugh out loud) — and, yes, goofy in some of the wrong ways, too. The ending: It’s satisfying, but it satisfies the wrong things. It’s the feelings Shyamalan has mined, all along, that make the movie worth seeing. The conclusory info dump is, by comparison, just a bullet point.