To paraphrase the introduction to Dan Olson’s video essay regarding watching Contagion dozens of times during the early months of the pandemic: this is not a review, it is a raw nerve.
As M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film came to a close, I began to lose sight of the film itself, and I started to think a lot about my own life. This began with my brain asking itself a simple question: “What’s the point of all this?” As the all-too-anticipated yet always unpredictable twists and turns began piling up on top of each other I was so baffled by what I was observing that my brain began to collapse, only able to observe itself. I planned to write, regardless of my feelings on Old, that it’s great to see Shyamalan back and that his large revision in my circles is a good thing considering the years of bad press and widely publicized career struggles he has faced, no doubt due to systemic racism. But I just don’t have a plain review in me for this thing.
I should start where this evening began. I drove to my local theater to see Old shortly after getting home from work. I haven’t been to this theater regularly in over a year, or any theater of its size, really. I noticed that the liminal black carpet with odd elementary shapes and colors had been replaced by a bland hardwood that no longer matched the black and green colors of the walls. With a long night of nothing better to do I first sit down to watch Snake Eyes, something I have chosen to do for pleasure before the real “work” is to begin. Five hours later, as Old came to an end I felt an odd sense of displacement in my stomach. I am already thinking about getting in my car and racing home to write this piece, with this sentence repeating over and over in my head: not enough time has passed for me to even see the film a second time, but I already feel the experience of watching it as a distant memory compared to what I feel now.
This is not a feeling I think is entirely separate from what Shyamalan is pondering in his latest supernatural thriller, which I should back up and explain. Old is a film about a family of four that head on a family vacation, the parents knowingly on the precipice of a divorce which will mark this as one of their final moments together as a family. The manager of the resort they are staying at guides them to a secluded nature preserve, where they are dropped off for the day along with a doctor, his young lover, his mother and his daughter. Another married couple is dropped off just as the eight discover the presence of another man who has already arrived. As this party of strangers attempt to relax, they quickly discover that odd forces are at play when the three children suddenly age five years within minutes. This is a return to form for Shyamalan which the rushed shooting schedule of Glass could not provide, as his uncanny eye for framing unsettles the audience, with perfectly placed shots looking through the ribcage of a decomposed body coupled with shots filled with negative space, completely out of focus or accompanied with movement so frenetic it defies all logic or good taste. The same can be said for its cast, made up of performances that can feel so wooden and off-kilter that the film circles back around into its own sense of realism. Old exists in a similar liminal space to its characters, and to the building I sit in while I experience it. As 23-year-old Alex Wolff plays a six-year-old boy propelled into a fifteen-year-old’s body, the film begins to defy most layers of reality. Shyamalan is able to unsettle the audience with both what he chooses to display and what he chooses to conceal, the inciting incident kept at bay at first by having the faces of the children constantly away from the camera.
As I am bombarded with the final reveal and dozens of thematically ambiguous lines of dialogue, all I can think about is where I am and where I have been. I am sitting in the same theater where four years ago I saw Blade Runner 2049 with the person who has since then been my partner. I am right next to the largest theater in the house where I saw Avengers: Infinity War hours before my senior prom, sitting in between my partner and one of my best friends from high school. He and I haven’t spoken in more than three years. While I was watching Snake Eyes I sat in the same room where he and I watched A Cure For Wellness, all to ourselves, losing our damn minds. I thought about that through the completely forgettable climax of the prior. But as those lights come up, I return to the present.
Old is a film that exists, in my mind, beyond conventional metrics of criticism. Even the question of whether it is “good” or “bad” provokes an empty shrug. But I can tell you how it makes me feel. Maybe reading how this film has sent me into a state of perpetual confusion will entice you. Shyamalan has been a divisive guy as long as I can remember, and I’ve always been cautiously optimistic to see his new films. We’ve not had anything worse than The Happening or The Last Airbender yet. If you end up seeing Old, which I do recommend, I highly doubt you will have the same experience that I did. But I also don’t think you’ll forget it anytime soon. Maybe you will —that was another thing I pondered on as the lights came up. The dozen or so people in the theater with me probably won’t remember this night after a while. Even with the strange experience that I have had, I will likely forget it someday too. But that’s why I’m writing this now, is it not? As Old so thoroughly reiterates through its imagery, the only thing that will remain the same through the slow passage of time is the crashing of the waves on the sand.