by Greg Cwik
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan, U.S., Universal Pictures
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” —Robert Frost
For M. Night Shyamalan, it all began with an ending. Critics and moviegoers quickly came to the consensus that Shyamalan was the next Spielberg, a notion engendered, as well as blighted, by 1999’s surprise hit The Sixth Sense. It was Shyamalan's third feature, and it boasted the most "Don’t Spoil the Ending" kind of ending since Hitchcock’s Psycho. Moviegoers unburdened by social media were pretty good at keeping secrets in 1960, as they were with Shyamalan's ending almost 40 years later. The final reveal of The Sixth Sense isn't, of course, really a twist as much as a natural finale to a film that goes to great lengths to hint at the tragic epiphany of its protagonist.
Made for $40 million (back in the days when mid-budget studio films still thrived), The Sixth Sense, one of the most intimate and unlikely of modern American blockbusters, grossed 16 times its budget and made Shyamalan a brand name. After The Sixth Sense, the writer-director was expected, like Rod Serling or O. Henry, to deliver "twist" endings. Twists are knavish, conniving; Shyamalan builds his films not around twists but central conceits that lead to ineluctable endings. Nevertheless, the word "twist" stuck, all but ensuring that audiences could write Shyamalan off as a hack when he delivered precisely what was requested. And he did deliver: first, in Unbreakable (2000), with Bruce Willis again, and the revelation that a friend is in fact a comic-book foe; then, in the theological alien thriller Signs (2002), a spiritual, ontological revelation of how, in their accruement, many menial coincidences coalesce into meaning and purpose. And then there was The Village (2004), a film that, despite all its beauty—color as promise and portent, à la Ambrose Bierce; gothic romance redolent of Nathaniel Hawthorne; sumptuous photography by Roger Deakins, all lambent lighting and pitch black swallowing up negative space, akin to the gothic lyricism of a Poe sketch—was discussed almost exclusively in terms of a final reveal that proved merely bemusing to audiences. What many perhaps didn’t realize was that in this film Shyamalan aspired not to trick but to reveal the inevitable expiration of a secret, a town based on a premise that, like Shyamalan's brand of "twist" endings, could only work for so long. The film’s “What's in the box?” moment offers nothing as macabre as Gwyneth Paltrow's head, or some incongruous iniquity, but a revelation of the past: bibelots from bygone lives roiled by trauma, the foundation upon which the survivors and victims built their falsely innocent, antediluvian town.
Lady in the Water grossed $72 million against a $70 million budget, The Happening was widely derided, and the filmmaker hit a critical nadir with the one-two punch of The Last Airbender and After Earth. While hardly misunderstood gems, these movies did have an upside, leading to one good thing: Shyamalan used his director's fees from the latter to fund the $6 million indie horror film The Visit, a scary grandma movie that rejuvenated the tired found footage genre. His next film, Split, starring James McAvoy, brought in almost $300 million on a budget of $9 million, making M. Night Shyamalan a marketable name again.
Now, with Old, an adaptation of Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederick Peters’s graphic novel Sandcastle, the middle-aged former wunderkind has made a film about aging, fading away, and the inevitable end of all things. Actuary Guy (Gael García Bernal) and museum curator Prisca (Vicky Krieps), a couple about to separate, take their eleven-year-old daughter, Maddox (Alexa Swinton), and their six-year-old son, Trent (Nolan River), to a beauteous beach resort in an unnamed country. There, they are enticed when the resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) mentions a little-visited section of the beach, an idyllic swath of sand and swell sequestered from the rest of the resort by massive palisades. A driver (Shyamalan himself) takes them in a van, though once they arrive, they're surprised to find other visitors in this supposedly secret spot: a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who suffers from hemophilia; schizophrenic doctor Charles (a frightening Rufus Sewell), his calcium-deficient wife, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), and daughter Kara (Eliza Scanlen); and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), an epileptic, and her nurse husband Jarin (Ken Leung).
It doesn't take long for things to get weird when they find the bloated corpse of a girl bobbing in the water, her body decaying abnormally fast. Then, Charles's mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), begins to have chest pains; soon, she's dead and Maddox and Trent and Kara are teenagers. The group eventually ascertains that for every half-hour they're on the beach, they age by a year. The crises immediately pile up. Prisca's tumor, previously undisclosed, bloats into the size of a cantaloupe. The doctor, increasingly delusional and obsessed with figuring out what movie starred Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson (The Missouri Breaks), becomes irate and starts stabbing people with his pocketknife while his daughter's belly swells with a child. The adults can’t contain their fear. Kids always say they want to grow up fast, and here, they are given that very opportunity. A Dante quote seems appropriate: “The wisest are the most annoyed at the loss of time.”
As always, Shyamalan marries the silly to the serious; there is a general ridiculousness to the film's internal logic, but there are moments of horrific intensity (e.g., when Chrystal, whose bones are as breakable as those of Mr. Glass, tries to crawl through a cave and ends up all crumpled and grotesquely misshapen, lanky limbs entangled). Shyamalan is clearly having fun here, but he treats the material with its due respect. It's all so sincere. Like Shyamalan's previous films, Old is about human relations amidst trauma, normal people trying to communicate in abnormal situations, and trying to keep it together when faced with unbelievable scenarios. Here, parents watch the years go by in a wink, their kids grow up, and all those memories dissipate before they ever had a chance to exist, while the children are deprived of entire eras of their lives, watching the adults erode like sandcastles in the wind.
Shyamalan's films can be quite melancholy, as this one is, but they often, especially his more recent ones, vibrate with giddiness, the ever-alert camera finding the right, often idiosyncratic angle; Shyamalan still believes, with the resoluteness of a child, that movies are magic, even if they're for adults. (Consider The Happening’s long-take set pieces—you can practically hear Shyamalan in the editing room giggling gleefully when a lawnmower runs over a guy.) Old resembles The Happening in this regard, with which it shares a sense of macabre fun. He is a deft visual storyteller, relishing in cinematic braggadocio with just the right amount of ego. He knows he's good, and he flaunts that virtuosity. Shyamalan works with great cinematographers (Tak Fujimoto, Deakins, Eduardo Serra, Christopher Doyle, Andrew Lesnie). With Old, Mike Gioulakis (who shot Split and Glass) captures the azure of balmy skies above the beach with waves furling, unfurling, erupting on the shore and cavernous cliffs looming like ancient colossi. (The film was shot in the Dominican Republic.)
Shyamalan pulls off all kinds of crafty tricks with the camera, which is almost always on the prowl, untethered as it pans and zooms and pushes and pulls, claustrophobic close-ups that make the characters look as large as the cliffs. (The close-ups emphasize the characters' humanity: it's hard to wish death, even the most gloriously filmed death, on someone whose eyes you've looked into.) There are fragments of faces in varying degrees of focus, faces smeary in the periphery of the frame, and long ambulant shots of characters dwarfed by the cliffs. He plays with different focal planes, as when Prisca, in the foreground with a book in her hand, asks Guy, standing in the background, what book she's reading, testing to see if he's been paying attention to her ("I don't know," he replies). Early on, these characters are either confined within their own shot/reverse-shots, or pressed into the corners of the frame, and when they inhabit the same shot, one is usually blurry. Shyamalan can dexterously conjure tension during the most mundane situations, as with a game of freeze-tag played by the childish trio. The camera picks up and moves with a subject, then moves away when it catches a glimpse or a glance of someone or something else over there.
Naturally, Old’s ending is going to polarize moviegoers. It initially seemed to me a sharp, nonsensical turn, offering the kind of laziness detractors have accused Shyamalan of for years. Compared to The Village, with its slow accrual of details and final ironic loss of innocence—a young, blind woman experiencing a world most people in her community will never know exists—Old's ending at first felt too cute, like The Cabin in the Woods. Shyamalan's biggest flaw as a filmmaker remains his habit of over-explaining things—this and The Happening would be better off left vague, like the aviary attacks in Hitchcock's The Birds.
Upon a second viewing, the ending felt less arbitrary. [Spoilers ahead.] Twice Shyamalan shows us cameras glinting in the sun, and twice he shows us a wide shot of the cliffs set against blue sky—and, if you look closely enough, you can see someone up there prowling, peering, a shot that probably wouldn't work if watched on, say, a laptop. The revelation that these are unwitting participants in a conspiratorial experiment—guinea pigs for utilitarian-minded scientists because they have preexisting conditions—summons images of pallid faces watching, via monitors, what we’re watching. It’s intended as a moral tale, with scientists trying to save lives at the cost of the vacationers.
This straight-faced fantasy may be predicated on silly, unconventional logic, but the filmmaking is relentlessly inventive. In an era of profoundly impersonal American movies manufactured by mega-producers, it’s a rarity to see such dedication to awe. It's a film about aging made with childish excitement. Shyamalan is no longer a promising young hit-maker, but a middle-aged director whose critical clout and brand appeal to your average money-paying moviegoers have fluctuated wildly. (A quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray, a book about a man who never grows old, comes to mind: “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”) Old, then, can be read as a comment on that feeling of seeing fewer and fewer good years ahead. It's been a long time since Shyamalan was a boy wonder. Reconciling with middle age is difficult. But movies can help.