M. Night Shyamalan’s new film “Old” is set at the kind of place that would have a starring role in a Boca magazine travel feature. Shot in the Dominican Republic but easily passing for Hawaii, the Bahamas or any tropical Eden, the unnamed resort is the sort of place where the proprietor greets guests as they exit their cars, where children feed their temptations at a 24-hour candy station, and where adults receive bespoke welcome cocktails tailored to each visitor’s preferences. It is, per the resort’s solicitous manager (Gustaf Hammarsten), “our version of paradise.”
But this being a Shyamalan film, stress-free R&R on an island idyll simply cannot last. For a director whose movies have more twists than a bag of Twizzlers, Shyamalan’s boldest move would be a picture that played it straight, or at least straight-ish. “Old,” based on a Swiss graphic novel called Sandcastle, is decidedly not such a product. Another playful cocktail of genres mixed by a demented huckster, “Old” succeeds merely at satisfying the expected—many would say tired—Shyamalan trademark: schematic storytelling in which every detail is placed for our decoding, finished off with meta winks at the audience.
The conceit is that certain privileged resort guests are permitted to visit a “secret” hotel amenity: an enviable stretch of private beachfront, nestled in a rocky nature preserve. Three such parties receive this honor, starting with the nuclear family at the film’s center: Risk assessor Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), a museum curator; and their two children, Trent and Maddox. The marriage is on shaky ground, and Prisca recently learned some troubling medical news. It turns out many of their cohort on the private beach also suffer various health issues: Among them Charles (Rufus Sewell), a cardiothoracic surgeon battling schizophrenia; his wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), who is hypocalcemic; Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a dancer with epilepsy; and Brendan (Aaron Pierre), a brooding rapper who goes by the stage name Mid-Sized Sedan, and who suffers from a rare blood disorder.
There is scarcely a coincidence in a Shyamalan film, and indeed, each party is there for a clandestine purpose. There’s a reason for everything in his movies; like reading an Agatha Christie novel, we take mental notes on every passing thought and seemingly incidental bit of background information, knowing it’ll inevitably come back, like the tide on this beachfront from Hell.
Everything is an omen, including the most obvious one: The hotel staffer who buses the guests to their secluded hideaway is played by M. Night Shyamalan himself, still out-Hitchcocking Hitchcock in the self-reflexivity department. The director is literally behind the wheel in determining the futures for all of these unfortunate characters. Later, to underscore this exhaustive doubling, we see him peering through the lens of a hidden camera at they desperately try to escape what has become an island prison.
Shyamalan’s films are spoiler minefields, and so I’ll just leave it at that, and focus more on the craft, with its naked adherence to formula. His oeuvre as a whole tends to oscillate between schlock and sincerity. Generally, the more time it spends on the latter, the better the film (“The Sixth Sense,” “Signs”); the more often it indulges in the former, the more inconsequential and self-absorbed the film (“The Happening,” “Lady in the Water”).
In this equation, “Old” is decidedly average Shyamalan, a notch below the fitfully innovative “The Visit” and “Split.” Moments in which Shyamalan seems genuinely invested in his characters and the monumental changes they undergo—physically, mentally, sociologically—over the course of the film are undercut by the director’s Barnumesque approach. Again and again, he holds on characters’ horrified gazes, milking every suspenseful reveal for every inch of its worth, like Spielberg gone to camp.
On a stronger note, while the film’s premise is supernatural, its subtext is rooted in all-too-human frailties, prejudices and avarices. As the isolated guests turn on each other, Sartre’s “hell is other people” comes to mind, as well as the humans, not the zombies, figuratively eating their own in Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” The movie also asks questions about the ethical limits of biomedical research, and Big Pharma’s role in such.
There is usually at least a nugget of insight buried in the scholastic bombast of Shyamalan’s style, and “Old” will play well to his fans—if not earning him many new ones.
“Old” is in theaters now.