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The Two Ways to Watch an M. Night Shyamalan Movie

‘Old’ is extremely representative of the longtime director, in good ways and bad

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M. Night Shyamalan’s Old is filled with bodies bent, broken, and turned against themselves; the violence is designed to get under our skin. The film’s cast—led by Vicky Krieps and Gael García Bernal as as a married couple trying to save their disintegrating relationship by taking their kids on an island holiday—spend most of their screen time clad in swimsuits, and the array of tanned, exposed, and grotesquely reupholstered flesh provides the ideal motif for a movie that’s striving to access the abstract through the tactile, to use body horror to get metaphysical.

Old’s patron saints include the David Cronenberg of Shivers, the Luis Buñuel of The Exterminating Angel, and the J.J. Abrams of Lost (hence the presence of Miles from Lost), but hovering above all of them is Rod Serling. The setup is pure Serling: a beautiful, secluded tropical beach where time is mysteriously out of joint, rapidly and prematurely aging anybody unlucky enough to wind up on (or be lured to) its shores. Shyamalan has made his name turning such twilight zones into his own comfort zones, but Old is his most discomfiting movie to date. The script’s jagged, ambivalent observations about aging, disease, and mortality keep jutting through the genre movie’s surfaces like compound fractures.

Few contemporary American filmmakers have the kind of kamikaze commitment to their own ideas as Shyamalan, whose career post–The Sixth Sense has taken a series of iconoclastic turns—New Spielberg; The Man Who Heard Voices; Robot Chicken punch line—before essentially ending up back where it started, with a gifted, endlessly eccentric auteur leveraging brand-name creative clout against idiosyncratic principles while working on a multiplex-sized canvas. The question has never been whether Shyamalan is talented so much as whether his skills have been squandered on wildly uneven dramatic material—almost all of it his own. The takeaway from the unlikely, comeback-hit diptych of Split and Glass, both set in a superhero universe miles more lo-fi than Marvel’s, is that Shyamalan is more confident than ever about his concepts. He’s found the sweet spot between not caring about what his haters think and trying to tell stories that touch a universal nerve. “Swing away,” Mel Gibson instructs Joaquin Phoenix at the end of Signs, a situationally specific bit of advice that’s also as good a summation of Shyamalan’s ethos as any. In movie after movie, he takes a generic scenario—a kid who sees ghosts, a civilian discovering supernatural powers, an alien invasion—and tries to clobber it as hard as he can.

Old is a big swing that makes contact, a grisly, invigorating mix of exploitation and empathy which suggests persuasively that Shyamalan knows precisely what he’s doing: using clichés and contrivance to explore and exorcise collective anxieties, with near-total sincerity and at the very real risk of appearing ridiculous.

There’s something bold and joyous about the way Shyamalan toes the line between the ridiculous and the sublime, as if daring the viewer to choose sides. Arriving at the beach with her parents (Krieps and Bernal) and younger brother Trent (Nolan River) for a special day trip, 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) spies another tourist (Aaron Pierre) lurking nearby and recognizes him, breathlessly, as a Top 40 rapper named—wait for it—“Mid-Sized Sedan.” One way to receive this bit of information is to laugh out loud. Another is to recall that in Shyamalan’s surprisingly effective found-footage freakout The Visit—also a thriller about kids on vacation who end up confronting the mysteries and terrors of the adult world head-on—the movie’s preteen white boy free-styler hero cited Tyler, the Creator as his idol and to laugh with Shyamalan. From there, you can start mapping those incongruous hip-hop allusions into the larger constellation of themes, fetishes, and obsessions that make up the director’s self-contained and thoroughly personalized cinematic universe.

So, for those inclined to watch Old with a checklist in hand—the kind of viewer interested in the not-so-buried secrets of M. Night Shyamalan—the movie ticks off plenty of boxes: isolation, paranoia, murderous psychosis, fragmenting group dynamics, elaborate social experiments, floridly color-coded symbolism, outrageous death scenes. These familiar tropes come duly packaged in Shyamalan’s familiarly stylized aesthetics—lots of off-center framings, startling cutaways to landscapes or trees, and actors arranged in claustrophobic clusters even while standing in open spaces—and are drenched in the unstaunchable torrents of water that flow through Shyamalan’s cinema like lifeblood (think of Bruce Willis’s swimming-pool baptism in Unbreakable, or the soggy deus ex machina of Signs). It’s all topped off with the director’s most suggestive cameo since Lady in the Water, in which, wrestling prematurely with his legacy and waning popularity, he cast himself as a martyred, thwarted literary genius. In Old, Shyamalan cuts a considerably more sinister figure, to the point that, once again, you kind of have to laugh with him. Without spoiling the precise nature of his role, it’s clear that Shyamalan is kidding his own auteur myth, and having a good time doing it.

In order to get on Old’s wavelength, it’s crucial to recognize that its sometimes wobbly tone marks it as an authentically grotesque movie. True grotesquerie—like Cronenberg’s deadpan atrocity exhibitions—doesn’t ask the viewer to choose between humor and revulsion. Instead, it recognizes that in some ways they’re one and the same, involuntary responses in the face of excess. Old’s gore is outrageous but also scrupulously controlled, and the same goes for Shyamalan’s visual and storytelling strategies. There are moments when the camera seems to drift away from the action instead of capturing it head-on, which could be taken as botched or amateurish technique if not for the way it speaks to the larger theme of time swiftly and indifferently passing people by. Meanwhile, the clunkiness of the narrative exposition—much of it delivered in the kind of hushed, quasi-lobotomized line readings Shyamalan has been encouraging since The Sixth Sense—ends up feeling apropos in the context of people growing dissociated from their own bodies and identities, as well as from reality itself. The characters’ staggering, brain-dead bewilderment is the point. When Maddox and Trent suddenly go from prepubescent to fully developed young adults in the span of half an hour, the Top 40 rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan stops feeling like a non sequitur and more like the natural order of things.

If Shyamalan struggles at all in Old, it’s with the quasi-scientific conceits about magnetism and cellular regeneration that lie at the edges of his story—the boundary lines around his twilight zone. But what he puts front and center splits the difference between unhinged and affecting, which turns out to be a potent combination. The plot beats are structured almost entirely around the revelations of the various characters’ respective vulnerabilities, the preexisting physical and psychological conditions drawn out by the island’s uncanny effects, usually with disastrous consequences. It’s not that Shyamalan defines his characters by their defects so much as he’s taking detailed, merciless inventory of all the ways that our biologies can betray us. Not all of the actors are up to the challenge of playing existential vessels—Rufus Sewell, so good in support of Anthony Hopkins in The Father, falters as one of the director’s trademark human monsters—but Krieps and Bernal evince a believably damaged intimacy, while Thomasin McKenzie and Alex Wolff do the emotional heavy lifting as the teens who’ve been hurtled toward maturity.

In one sequence, McKenzie’s Maddox wades out into the surf in an attempt to distance herself from the island and the implications of a life that’s now flashing before her eyes; the resplendent, deep-blue imagery suggests not only the flow of time but immersion in an oceanic consciousness. That Shyamalan can’t help punctuating this moment of poetry with a cheap jump scare speaks to his B-movie sensibility, as does his insistence on giving this uncanny tale a mostly rational—if wildly implausible—wrap-up. As reductive as it may be to define Shyamalan’s cinema in terms of twists, it’s true that he hinges his narratives on moments of revelation, and when he’s on his game, you can feel your focus and curiosity sharpen alongside the characters. Old’s solution isn’t as ingenious, but it is intriguing when taken in tandem with the wrap-up of Glass, which proposed the existence of a shadowy global cabal determined to keeping extraordinary individuals out of public view for the greater good—an allegory for independent-minded filmmakers ground down and marginalized in an era of corporatized entertainment-industry hegemony. (It’s definitely a movie made by an ex-Disney employee.) This is not to say that Old is also a superhero allegory in disguise, or that it ends with a cameo by Bruce Willis. But it extends Shyamalan’s fascination with juxtaposing systems of top-down control against the squishy business of being human.

There are kinder ways to mourn the inevitability of our mutual decay than methodically decimating a group of tourists one by one until there were none, and subtler metaphors for the human spirit enduring in the face of death than a sandcastle being erected against a rising tide (an image carried over from the French graphic novel on which the film is loosely based). Subtlety does have its virtues—but then again, so does overstatement. With Old, Shyamalan’s voice achieves a kind of goofy grandeur that can’t be faked or focus-tested, a stilted yet eloquent testimony to the importance of being earnest.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.