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Old

The glorious paradox of a filmmaker that is so unabashedly themselves the way Shyamalan is is that both his greatest strengths and weaknesses stem directly from the unshakable fact that dood absolutely refuses to get the fuck over himself. If, hypothetically speaking, M. Night did in fact get the fuck over himself, then maybe he'd be able to let such conventionally skilled performers as Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps actually act(jaw-dropping seeing what she's doing in this when the only other film I've seen her in she's giving one the greatest performances of the 21st century and outclassing one of the most celebrated actors of all time) instead of saddling them with this restrictive, spaced-out and stilted wannabe Bergman/Lynch* type nonsense he has everyone doing to no real ends. But yet, just look at the things him and DP Mike Gioulakis(maybe the best director/cinematographer duo working right now?) are doing with their camera, blocking and framing and movement so genuinely and effectively unhinged that the shitty multiplex digital projection quite literally could not keep up, real fuck you shit that is all quite clearly and quite fruitfully the product of an artist who refuses to get the fuck over himself, and my god I wouldn't trade any of that for a thousand dramatically sound performances or a twist(?)** that actually has anything to do with the preceding film.

That's the main thing I really wanna try and suss out here actually, the one thing that's kinda keeping me on the cusp of full-on ADORING this, is how disconnected that ending feels from the rest of the film. For like 85% of its running time this is the most abstract and metaphysical Shyamalan has ever gotten, by the standards of a hollywood thriller he's much less interested in the ticking clock thriller mechanics of "we've gotta get off this beach before it kills us!" and more focused on episodically going down a list of broad and generic moments of human life and death at large as filtered through the absurd and horrific logic of his high-concept. Then that reveal comes along to give us more traditional stakes, an explicable villain with explicable motivations and a conventional "save ourselves and punish the bad-guy" type wrap-up, all the while the surface level thematic preoccupations of these two disparate halves, the grand sweep of life and aging versus the murky ethics of the pharmaceutical industry, don't really feel to me like they have ANYTHING to do with one another.

Or do they(*spoilers* kinda sorta actually)? Let's try and break this down...

Like I said, this is easily the least Shyamalan has ever been concerned with plot mechanics/logic/momentum/etc(and when you consider his filmography boy is that saying something), he creates a scenario that would realistically play out as a survival thriller and instead treats it as some sort of backwards ass chamber drama where the emotional logic and progression is not dictated by real world concerns(not dying) but by the potential philosophy and metaphysics generated by the concept itself. Even scenes that are wholly centred around characters trying to escape (Eliza Scanlen scaling the rocks) put less emphasis on the mechanics of the ostensible action(starts with a close-up on her eyes as she makes the decision/finds the resolve to try, then switches to wide shots where she's merely a blip as the others try and call her back) than on what it means for the other characters(Alex Wolff pleading desperately for her to return). This is in someway or another true of all of the more conventional scenes of action and/or horror, when Rufus Sewell goes on his final rampage every element of the set-piece concerns the characters aging, from the worsening of his own schizophrenia to Bernal's blindness and Krieps deafness, or the tracking shot across the beach during the birth(one of the highest highs in all of M. Night's whole career, holy fucking shit), where there's no time made for "what are we going to do?!" type suspense, instead M. Night simply chronicles the basic stages of the experience, the panic of the baby on its way, the joy of its arrival, the tragedy of its death, in the span of less than a minute, a broad and generic human experience warped and magnified by the constraints of a filmic gimmick.

But let's go back to the rock climbing scene, where Wolff vaguely floats the idea to Scanlen that it's maybe more worth it to live a short but(technically speaking) full life together on the beach rather than risk instant death to try and escape(making a note here to draw a HARD FUCKING LINE between this moment and "Why did we want to leave the beach?"). At its most effective that's what the film is doing, simply looking at moments in these people's lives through the lens of the concept itself, using it to create and lord over these demented miniatures of all-caps "LIFE AS WE KNOW IT" like some kind of mad scientist(aha there it is, now we're getting somewhere!). Though there's another character that's MUCH more clearly and obviously some form of analogue for M. Night himself(we'll get there eventually!!!), while we're actually trapped on the beach it's Nikki Amuka-Bird's character who seems to most concretely take the form of the director's guiding hand, attempting to get everyone to slow down and get to know each other, more focused on trying to understand the people than the situation, at its essence she seeks to organize the scenario in terms of humanity rather than practicality(though she does of course come at things this way for purely practical reason), just as Shyamalan does.

This approach makes it so that the beach's function in the film is less of a supernatural antagonist, and more of simple macguffin that affords Shyamalan the context to doodle in his big metaphysical sandbox, which leads to the first thing I found odd and frustrating about the ending, how it pulls the whole thing back from those broad metaphysics and into a more straightforward and digestible evil conspiracy with tangible people and motivations at its center, turning away from what I found to be the most interesting thing Shyamlan was up to and embracing generic thriller convention. So we make a sudden swerve from "musings on life and mortality" to a random ass pharmaceutical conspiracy, keeping the ending divorced from the rest for now, what exactly is M. Night trying to get at here? The least favourable interpretation I've seen is that this is a straight up anti-vaxx screed, a reading that I'm not gonna pretend isn't fair enough due to timing and all, but I dunno, the film keeps things pretty broad/vague in this regard, and there's a real wide berth to travel between "the pharmaceutical industry is kinda shady, huh?" and "vaccines cause autism!".

(For the record, my own opinion on the matter is that if you think "Mhhhh, I'm mightily dubious of these extremely rushed vaccines from these greedy for-profit corporations" and "Good news, I nonetheless got vaxxed as soon as I could!" are in anyway contradictory or nonsensical stances to hold, you can sincerely go fuck yourself hard)

Sigh, anyway...

Much clearer is M. Night probing the dubious morality of a "sacrificing HUNDREDS in order to saves THOUSANDS" type mindset, sending these people to the beach knowing it means a death sentence for them, but in doing so affords the chance to study their various illnesses/ailments(cancer, schizophrenia, epilepsy, etc) over what is technically a lifetime and thus aids immensely in fast-tracking new treatments and cures for said ailments. Even this could still be tied to a Covid specific reading, and a fairly reasonable one at that, maybe simply musing on the dilemma of rushing the creation of a supposed cure at the risk of unknowable side-effects for those first in line to take them versus taking the proper time to create such a remedy while a global pandemic simply worsens and worsens without said cure. I think what ultimately bugs me, what makes these two disparate chunks of the film feel so off from each other, is that one is so broad while the other is so specific. I think the biggest flaw here is a struggle to smoothly modulate, to be able to navigate between these two different modes in a way that makes it clear how they compliment each other. Personally I kinda wish M. Night could've gotten over his compulsion to treat the bigger concept (the pharmaceutical angle) as a sudden surprise reveal all the way at the end, I imagine a version of this willing to give the full reveal early on then go back and forth between the beach goers and the scientists (not too much though I would think, still keep things MOSTLY on the beach), just enough so that we're given the opportunity to actually stack up these two elements back to back and watch them try and exist in conversation with one another.

Instead, they're kept wholly separate and then bridged together by one other small but essential element, *drum roll*... M. Night's obligatory cameo! The director gives us just a small taste of more metatextual material, casting himself as the bus driver that brings them to the beach, and the one watching/filming them and collecting data(shot of Shyamalan looking through the camera got me straight up levitating in the theatre), and for a while I wasn't sure whether I should take it as just a bit of distracting self-indulgent window dressing, or the glue that's meant to hold everything together. I will fault Shyamalan to a degree with the murkiness here, that lack of proper modulation in his storytelling creating a lot of uncertainty as to what the main thrust here is even supposed to be(and that the exact character he gives himself being just one random guy involved in this conspiracy instead of the architect at its center makes for an extra muddled metaphor as well), but I'll admit that after a few days I'm coming around on an interpretation that feels pretty solid to me(one that I had no real grasp on when I first started writing this, that's for sure). Maybe it's a little eye-rolling, a film posturing to be about nothing less than life and death themselves and everything that goes on in between the two ACTUALLY just being some sort of treatise on the director's own filmmaking, but whatever, I'll be totally blunt and say it bugged me way less than whatever sort of whiny ass spoiled baby tantrum David Lynch kept lapsing into with "The Return"(never give up on a chance to lovingly shit on "The Return", which I promise I still like!).

So let's go back to what I said about Nikki Amuka-Bird's character, the way she tries to focus on humanity over practically while trapped on the beach, and how this reflects Shyamalan's own approach to the film. Shyamalan spends his time on the beach detailing and probing into his own filmmaking m.o., specifically all the things he's always been shit on for by the annoying "tHeN wHy DiD tHeY cOmE tO a PlAnEt ThAt'S oNe BiLlIoN % wAtEr?!!?" crowd, where action and performance and plot is dictated not by concerns of logic or conventional stakes but by his own metaphorical preoccupations, he doubles down on so many of his alleged bad habits (the stilted dialogue/performances***, the corny ass humour, lack of real world logic) in an attempt to lay their functions bare. Earlier I mentioned how he treats even conventional set-pieces with more of an eye and ear for the metaphysical than for the literal, but another thing he does as he purposefully turns his back on conventional human/physical logic is propel these scenes instead with the logic of pure filmmaking. Think of the cave scene with the deformed calcium lady(imo great in theory but kinda awkward in practice), it makes zero sense that the kids keep lighting the matches(her form is still clearly visible in the dark, all they're really doing is drawing more attention to themselves), the only difference is that we the audience wouldn't then be privy to the gnarly/goofy horror effects that M. Night has conjured up for our amusement, the priority is not logic, but simply that we witness(and engage with) what the architect has built for us. It's the same when Bernal and Krieps get attacked, the blocking and choreography as well as the edit barely coheres here, the rhythm of the set-piece is dictated not by the showdown itself(which is fairly incomprehensible and nonsensical as presented), but by the technical elements that M. Night is in control of and the sensory experience he can conjure with it, what Krieps can and cannot hear and what Bernal struggles to see(fitting considering how much the cinematography of the film struggles against the constraints of crappy multiplex projection).

(Gotta note that my brain likely would've never stumbled upon this particular thread if it wasn't for Luke Robinson's kickass lil write-up, so credit where it's due, check this shit out it totally rips:

letterboxd.com/viginti/film/old-2021/

"Still, there is such a strong love of film here that it's impossible not to find moments to love nestled in amongst the hoary flaws. If editing is the premise then make-up gets to become plot, costumes define characters, sound-design and lens focus are reveals, lighting is a battle and watching - him behind the camera and us in front of the screen - becomes the only game worth spending our time playing.")

So it's M. Night breaking down his own artistic process and intent, humanity over practicality, grand sweeping emotions and philosophies and metaphysics over the dull and limiting constraints of dramatic/narrative logic and reason, telling us he's been hearing the haters loud and clear, and that he's going to do everything in his power to continue proudly ticking off every single box that drives them oh so mad. And thus, the villains of the film ultimately turn out to be... an evil conspiracy that values an utilitarian outlook on humanity as a mere numbers game over a philosophy of cherishing and upholding individuality above all else. Ya know, maybe I actually can forgive Shyamalan's sloppiness at conveying his message/metaphor, since at the end of the day it's kinda just the ending of "Glass" all over again. Not just the demented uplift of "You are as brilliant and special as you think you are, all that self-doubt is just a widespread conspiracy to keep you down!", but the way he sorta distractingly/haphazardly grafts this onto a hyper-topical subject matter(from superheroes to pharmaceuticals) that a lot of people seem to be taking as a specific commentary on said subject instead of just another trip deep into M. Night Shyamalan's rectum(not a bad thing in the slightest!). I'd be lying if I said a part of me doesn't miss the filmmaker capable of remaining such a unique voice even while making something as tight and controlled as "The Sixth Sense", "Unbreakable", "The Village", etc, but this new ultra whacked-out high-on-himself schlockmeister we've had for the last several years now is pretty fucking endearing too I gotta say, and from where I'm sitting he stands as a pretty solid example of how there's very little more useless/pointless than thinking you can convince the a self-appointed genius auteur/mad scientist that you know better than him.


*Though Yorgos Lanthimos is probably the best comparison if you're looking to successfully argue with racist ass film dweebs, and it tracks too because I also tend to find Lanthimos' shtick needlessly grating.

**Does this even count as a twist tho, or is it simply a reveal? A twist implies information we thought we knew being suddenly upended (the alive guy is actually dead, the derailment wasn't actually an accident, the monsters aren't actually real, etc), as opposed to simply waiting for a mystery we are well aware of to be solved/answered. Here the characters slowly deduce(or at least theorize) across the film that the resort people purposefully trapped them there, are watching them, etc, and so when we get to the end it's simply just a reveal of the WHY of the situation. Thoughts?

***Just cause I've thought up a potential justification though, doesn't mean I have to like it, ahhhh!!!

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