Old ★★★★

The movies of M. Night Shyamalan have always excelled at generating tension or dread when viewed at face value, but his narratives crumble like a house of cards if one delves deeper to apply real life logic to the scenarios. I liken the effect to an observation that film critic Roger Ebert once wrote in his review of Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, describing it as a story that only exists within the confines of the camera frame. For example, Clint Eastwood's heroic gunfighter is standing on an open plain where one can view surroundings for miles, but he is surprised when he hears the click of a gun and suddenly sees someone standing 10 feet away. The characters in that Leone spaghetti western do not see anything until the audience sees it. Similarly, Shyamalan's 1999 masterwork, The Sixth Sense, makes no actual sense when one ponders the situations at hand and wonders why it takes so long for Bruce Willis's lead to become self-aware if all of his interactions with others besides one particular boy are apparently one-sided.

If a viewer is willing to surrender himself or herself to Shyamalan's wavelength, however, then the reward can be an often harrowing experience where the characters on the screen and the audience coexist under a shared emotional connection. In other words, his films work best when one just rolls willingly with the sleight of hand and simply focuses on what the camera eye wants one to see. His 2021 feature, Old, loosely based on the graphic novel, Sandcastle, by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters, is easily my favorite work by the director in two decades, although I admittedly have to go out of my way not to think around the corners.

When a couple, played by Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También) and Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) visit a tropical island resort with their two young children and are invited by the manager to spend a day on a secluded beach with a small handful of other vacationers, they are drawn into a grisly maelstrom of body horror of the sort that would compel David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Fly) to nod with approval. This private seaside location harbors a secret that defies the laws of time, causing its visitors to age rapidly over a matter of hours.

Like many others, I feel that I have aged 20 years during the past eighteen months, thanks to life and grief in the pandemic era. Perhaps this state of being allows me to settle into Shyamalan's groove all the more, enabling me to shrug off the absurdities at hand, especially during the final minutes, where this film attempts to explain a premise that would have fared far better if left in ambiguity.

I am fascinated by this movie's exploration of the psychological effects of rapid aging, especially with concept of the young children who inexplicably become teenagers, played by Thomasin McKenzie (JoJo Rabbit), Alex Wolff (Hereditary), and Eliza Scanlen (Little Women), who still have the minds of young children. I would have loved for this movie to have remained in that realm of thought-provoking character studies instead of attempting to wrap a bow on the tale in the vein of an ending of an episode from The Twilight Zone. Before the unintentionally amusing explanation, however, we are treated to some wondrously unnerving vignettes, thanks in particular to a doctor, played by Rufus Sewell (A Knight's Tale), whose stress takes some homicidal turns.

Old, despite its title, flies by at a lightening pace, with a plethora of haunting terrors, including bodies that decompose within minutes, tumors that are surgically removed, and, in one glorious instance, a calcium-deficient woman who is all too willing to break a leg, so to speak, as she zeroes in on some potential victims. This is a gleefully demented joy ride, through and through, for those of us who just want to watch the magician's hands at work without trying to figure out the tricks.

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