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Time Flies*
M. Night Shyamalan was straitjacketed, after his enormous success with The Sixth Sense, as the ‘twist’ guy. There’s a lot going on under the hood of most of his output and his latest movie OLD showcases a number of curious ideas. Camus returns to the cinema at last…
 
  “I think when you're younger, everything is binary: "I'm in love!” or “I hate you, mom!" As you get older, everything gets a little bit more subtle. We don't notice it, because it happens over decades for us. But - Old asks, what if it happened in a matter of hours?”
  Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan**

 

The core concept of Old - taken from the trailer - immediately presents a potential audience with a tantalising hook - a mysterious beach where people grow older at the rate of a year every thirty minutes. At the same time it inadvertently confirms that whatever the answer is to this extraordinary place will simply not satisfy. It can’t. We’ve all been there before and the smarter film and TV makers, wanting to explore humanity in impossible scenarios, rarely explain themselves or the impossible situation. The Beatles-less world of Yesterday began with a mysterious bang and remained Beatle-less at the end of the film (no answers there). Channel 4’s Misfits proudly promised that you’d never find out how these people gained their odd assortment of powers. And Old’s source material, the graphic novel Sandcastle, doesn’t either. Once in an impossible situation, the character drama needs to move to the top of the interest tree. Adding another layer to the question “How is all this possible?” is the identity of the writer/director, M. Night Shyamalan. While he was swiftly burdened with being famous for his many last act rug pulls, I tried not to think about how any of this ageing business could be explained satisfyingly and just attempted to enjoy the ride and the questions of character that became pertinent. The graphic novel is far more sexually explicit and certainly does not end the same way as the film. Shyamalan couldn’t resist a coda that perhaps didn’t explain as much as illustrate human beings’ limitless capacity for unjustifiable cruelty. That’s not a spoiler. Characters lead other characters to a dangerous place. That’s in the trailer.

OK, the set-up is as follows. A married couple, soon to be divorced, is attempting to give their two children a great memory at a very special tropical holiday resort before they separate. A surgeon with his slim, much younger wife is here together with his mother and daughter as is another married couple, a psychologist and a nurse. What unites the adults are troublesome medical histories from tumours to schizophrenia and hypocalcemia to epilepsy. As soon as they arrive at the resort, my suspicions were aroused. The oleaginous manager and the perfect drinks bearer seemed too polite, too eager to please. As the days go by, the selected holidaymakers are chosen to enjoy a very special beach surrounded by vast volcanic cliffs. The driver takes them to the path down through the caves to the beach but doesn’t help them with their picnic hampers. He knows what’s waiting for the hapless bunch. Already on the beach and missing his girlfriend who went for a skinny dip earlier, is a well-known rap artist who seems to be in a state of shock. When the other parties arrive he is immediately greeted with suspicion despite the lead couple’s daughter recognising him and becoming somewhat starstruck. Taking an instant dislike to the black rapper is the surgeon with anti-social tendencies. It transpires that he suffers from schizophrenia and so his apparent hair-trigger racism or paranoia seems to be a symptom of his disorder. When the rapper’s girlfriend washes up, very deceased, all eyes are on the prime suspect who’s prone to prolific nose bleeds. It’s an eccentric and eclectic bunch that more or less conforms to the original graphic novel characters. The schizophrenic surgeon is the wild card, the nurse the rational one and the children… Well, they’re not children anymore after a few hours.

Old

Gael García Bernal as Guy and Vicky Krieps as Prisca are not what you might call an exceptional couple. Perhaps they were cast to represent ‘normality’. Their characters are indistinct and wafer-thin and I can’t figure out if that’s the script or the performances as directed. But it’s the responsibility of the writer/director one way or another, not the actors’. Both have proved their thespianic chops in many other roles. We’re not drawn in to the mystery via them as deeply as we might be and we may latch on to Charles the schizophrenic surgeon, played by Rufus Sewell, whose irrational, paranoid, knife wielding presence is at least compelling if not exactly plausible. But he’s the bad guy so who else is there to root for? Charles’ partner, Chrystal played by Abbey Lee, seems like a trophy wife but her calcium deficiency is going to play havoc with her in an accelerated life on the beach. Brendan the rapper, played by Aaron Pierre, resists the others’ suspicions and restates his innocence time after time but is as helpless as the rest trying to get to grips with what’s happening to them all. Attempting to keep the group cohesive are the psychologist and nurse, Patricia and Jarin (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird and Ken Leung respectively). They have the vote as the sane realists on the island. It’s when the kids start noticeably growing does the truth of their situation hit home. In the graphic novel it was small bathing suits stretched to cover larger bodies. In the movie it’s a definitive shift to older actors.

The one aspect of Shyamalan’s films I have admired over the years is his directorial precision. His work is very specifically directed not just covered to lean on the editor for the eventual construction of the narrative. The man shoots jigsaw pieces that can only go together in certain ways. No executive can come in and blithely re-edit Shyamalan’s work and that’s tremendously appealing. Dare I say ‘artistic’? So when he does stumble the disappointment is all the keener. Shyamalan has stumbled despite his stellar success with The Sixth Sense and Split, the latter made with his own money which made thirty times the production budget and was the most profitable film of 2017. He is an intelligent filmmaker who provides rare depth for those analysing his work. The box office disappointment (and the reason he rejected Disney and Disney rejected him), Lady in the Water is a sublime film that you have to watch with differently attuned eyes and mind. If literal is your bag, you’re going to respond as most did. Allow its central metaphor in without literalism and you may find that it’s a work of quite inspirational storytelling. Add to that one of über-gifted composer James Newton-Howard’s greatest scores, and you have a film that is a triumph if a little seen and appreciated one. I have to admit that my interest in Shyamalan is also entwined with the fact that his collaboration with Newton-Howard is often one that produces absolutely extraordinary soundtracks. I do not urge you to seek out the director’s The Last Airbender but I will enthusiastically ask you to listen to one of its music cues entitled Flow Like Water which you can find here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3N2EOjfoXbQ

Plug in the headphones, turn up the sound and lose yourself to an artist at the very peak of his compositional powers. It’s just so moving, so cinematic and so emotional… For once, take in the YouTube comments that promote this extraordinary cue. To be fair, Trevor Gureckis’s score for Old is very disquieting and effective. I just wonder if Shyamalan and Newton-Howard will ever team up again. The fact that they haven’t yet is almost a crime against the art of film scoring.

I was quite prepared to cut Shyamalan some slack despite the less than glowing reviews for Old. Along with the rapidly aging bodies on the beach is a correspondingly swift narrative. It steams forward hardly allowing the audience to take in emotionally what’s being presented to us. It’s like playing The Elephant Man at ten times normal speed – no emotional response is forthcoming because of the speed at which the story is being told. If there ever was a film that would have responded well to breathing room, it‘s Old. It’s certainly oddly entertaining if logically infuriating at times and Shyamalan’s mise-en-scene is unlike any of his contemporaries’, using half faces at the edges of frame to disquiet us and long pans (which do not serve as breathing room) to slowly reveal unpleasant situations. Editorially he holds off as characters react to the growing children with disbelief and alarm before cutting to the older children themselves.

Old

The casting is crucial here because even though there are only three kids to keep track of, it does help that a facial mole on actor Alex Wolff’s left cheek means he and his younger and older iterations are instantly recognisable. I last saw him in Hereditary and he has a very striking on screen presence. Another aspect of the graphic novel retained in the movie was the island’s way of keeping everyone on the beach. Swim, climb or navigate the lava tunnels to get free and you mysteriously pass out thereby drowning, falling to your death or waking up back on the beach with a headache. This is never explained and partners the beach’s ageing power as just one of those weird things needed to keep the story on track and the characters in place. Perhaps one of the most infuriating scenes of the film is an aquatic version of the canard of someone running for their life and then falling over. That drives me insane. In Old’s case it’s a scene of two characters underwater. I don’t know if I’m alone but whenever a movie character drops underwater, a timer starts counting in my head. Unless it’s The Big Blue which was about characters with extraordinary lung capacity, it drives me crazy to see ‘ordinary people’ perfectly comfortable underwater for what seems like a long time***. But compounding this issue is the underwater version of someone running for their life and falling over. Oh, their flimsy clothes have snagged on a coral. Oh no! Firstly, off with the clothes. Too modest? OK, how about rip the damn clothing. It’s not an industrial strength Carhartt jacket for Christ’s sake. Nope, that doesn’t seem possible either. Then the third answer is to snap the coral. Some corals are very delicate and brittle or maybe this is one of the harder types. It was white which is not a good colour for healthy coral. Regardless, the struggle ends and they find a convenient hole in the coral from which to snatch a breath… I wonder if that was a post-production reshoot after realising the film was stretching the suspension of disbelief to breaking point at having the characters seemingly underwater for an age. Thanks, Mark for the following observation. The irony abounds of a swift ageing-too-fast movie feeling much longer than it should to sit through…

I know I have not reviewed this early enough for you to see in cinemas (it may still be playing somewhere) but hit or miss, Shyamalan is a filmmaker to keep an eye on. He’s one of the few making original films not relying on pre-sold properties. Old does count in this regard because those that knew about and had read the graphic novel are hardly a solid base numbers-wise for Hollywood to build its marketing on. It’s a frustrating film is many ways but also one that prompts further thought and films, good or bad, that get under your skin are always worth your time, accelerated or not. I’m getting both old and Old and happy to promote one of the two…

 


* “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” This is attributed to Groucho Marx but is unverifiable.

** https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/7kvdzq/m-night-shyamalan-old-interview

*** To be fair, Shyamalan has read the same websites I have. The average time a normal person can hold their breath is between 30 and 90 seconds. The characters in the film take a breath at 1 minute and 5 seconds and emerge again after another 17 seconds. So just believable.
Old poster
Old

USA 2021
108 mins
directed by
M. Night Shyamalan
produced by
Marc Bienstock
Ashwin Rajan
Steven Schneider
written by
M. Night Shyamalan
based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by
Pierre-Oscar Lévy
Frederick Peeters
cinematography
Mike Gioulakis
editing
Brett M. Reed
music
Trevor Gureckis
production design
Naaman Marshall
starring
Gael García Bernal
Vicky Krieps
Rufus Sewell
Alex Wolff
Nikki Amuka-Bird

UK distributor
Universal Pictures Int (UK)
UK release date
23 July 2021
review posted
15 August 2021

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