warning: spoilers ahead.
From the moment The Sixth Sense blew viewers away with a shocking conclusion so well conceived it helped spread the phrase “no spoilers please”, m. Night Shyamalan’s name has been synonymous with the unexpected ending. old, his latest film, recalls the strengths the auteur first displayed in The Sixth Sense: an advanced ability to hook viewers with a perplexing premise plus the ability to explore big themes like mortality and regret in the space of a scare old also exemplifies the flaws in the director’s later efforts: a penchant for problematic portrayals of mental health and rudderless camerawork in the service of a surprise that doesn’t feel earned.
old man starts out simple: a seemingly perfect family made up of mom prisca (vicky krieps), dad guy (gael garcia bernal), 6-year-old son trent (nolan river), and 11-year-old daughter maddox ( alexa swinton), travels to an island paradise for a restless vacation. the island seems perfect: the hotel staff organizes a welcome party, complimentary cocktails are offered, and the calendar is packed with events such as parasailing, dance classes, etc. holds valuable secrets about the island.
The friendly resort manager tells the family about a picturesque private beach to visit. however, upon arrival at the seaside oasis, not only do the family’s underlying pains rise to the surface, but the gritty otherworldly landscape seems to age them rapidly. (two years every hour, to be exact). Trapped on the beach with two other families, surrounded by natural barriers, the imprisoned vacationers engage in a struggle to survive against the elements and each other. in the horrors of yesteryear there is an imperative message: savor every minute of life.
If only the ending of the movie lived up to that lofty mandate. instead, the slow burn of a journey the characters take is more illuminating than the twist ending. Along the way, we find out that Prisca, diagnosed with a benign tumor, cheated on a guy and the couple is about to get divorced; within earshot of their children, each accuses the other of ruining the marriage. but on the beach they get close again, leaning on each other while guy goes blind and prisca goes deaf. Due to her old-age death, which they reach within a day at the seashore, they barely remember what they were fighting about, deciding it wasn’t that important in the context of their lifelong love.
A violent, schizophrenic cardiothoracic surgeon named Charles is also confined to the beach, providing an unpleasant yet common trope for a character that appears in even Shyamalan’s best films. But Charles is not the most intriguing member of his family. Rather, Ella’s vain, explosive wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee) is the one to watch, the physical toll of her aging propelling her into a vicious mental breakdown, becoming some kind of monstrous caveman. Is the horror filmmaker making a big statement about short-lived beauty standards? If so, why does Chrystal become the only victim of blatant, Suspiria-style body horror? (In another, more emotionally terrifying scene, a pregnant woman gives birth to a baby who, due to time-warping beach nonsense, dies within a minute of being alive on the beach.)
shyamalan undermines many of his most riveting plotlines with several mind-numbing missteps, that is, carefully weeding out any lingering questions from the audience. it is revealed that, yes, other families have died on this beach; that is why rusty cutlery, clothes and notebooks can be found buried in the sand. a found journal, filled with hand-drawn drawings, clearly explains why they cannot escape: the surrounding rocks are magnetized, somehow causing headaches for anyone who dares to walk through them. (Between the old and f9, magnets are becoming an essential plot device for 2021. At least with the old, there’s no indication we’re getting a bigger shyamalan cinematic universe.)
but it’s trent’s sneaking suspicion that the vacationers are being watched from a hillside that left me groaning in the ether. We learn that the driver who first took them to the beach, played by Shyamalan himself, has been spying on them the entire time. he works for a group of scientists who have been using the beach to test various pharmaceutical drugs on sick and at-risk humans in a fast-paced environment. (Each family, it turned out, included a member with a pre-existing health condition. The rapid aging of test subjects allowed pharmaceutical companies to discover the “lifelong” effects of a drug in a very short time.) families on the beach were just guinea pigs.
Trent and Maddox, now adults, the only two survivors at the end of the film, eventually escape from the beach thanks to a clue from Idlib, who tells them to swim through the (unmagnetized?) . They arrive on the mainland to expose the nefarious scientist to the world, but nothing in their final scene, of Trent and Maddox in a helicopter to his aunt’s house, is as emotionally satisfying as their time on the beach. (Why do these two adults need to be entrusted to their aunt? How, exactly, did they expose the bad guys in the pharmaceutical industry?) By inserting himself into the narrative, a common technique for Shyamalan, the director is making a mockery of his reputation. For caring more about puzzles than characters? I don’t think he knows at all. he has the premise, but not the experiential basis, to achieve a philosophical landing.