REVIEW: Old [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 108 minutes
    Release Date: July 23rd, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Universal Pictures
    Director(s): M. Night Shyamalan
    Writer(s): M. Night Shyamalan / Pierre-Oscar Lévy & Frederick Peeters (graphic novel Sandcastle)

Stop wishing away this moment.

The first mention I heard about M. Night Shyamalan adapting Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters‘ French graphic novel Sandcastle was a tweet that more or less stated how he knew he had to try turning it into a film the moment he put it down. It’s not hard to imagine why since the book is almost tailor-made for the Shyamalan treatment with its mysteriously secluded locale; ensemble cast mired in a tense, supernatural scenario seemingly outside of their control; and a science fiction writer walking readers through hypotheses similarly to Bob Balaban‘s Harry Farber in Lady in the Water. And with a ton of intriguing details left unexplained, the room for a twist (or at least an explanation) was ripe. I only hoped he wouldn’t take that bait.

You can’t blame him, though. It’s one thing to let a poignant if tragic story thrive on the page unexplained. It’s another to do so on the big screen with the financial backing of a Hollywood studio like Universal. The only way Old becomes viable at the box office to producers seeking multi-million-dollar profits is if you provide some of the answers the authors didn’t a decade ago. To Shyamalan’s credit, however, he never sacrifices that which makes the novel so captivating. The answers he provides remain in-line with all the little details Lévy and Peeters placed within their margins. His leaps make logical sense—so much so that, besides the removal of the novel’s gratuitous sex, this is about as faithful an adaptation as you could get.

I don’t mean that solely in the context of this film either. I mean that on the level of adapting literature overall. Shyamalan enhances what’s on the page for—I don’t want to say a “visual medium” considering graphic novels bridge the gap between words and images—cinema in the way he meticulously orchestrates his endgame through seemingly innocuous ways. Everything he does from showing Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca’s (Vicky Krieps) arrival to their hotel getaway is intentional straight down to a harmless game young Trent (Nolan River) and Idlib (Kailen Jude) play at the pool. And he changes who the written characters are in subtly precise ways by merging and shifting identities. He’s streamlining rather than adding excess. He’s building an environment for heightened suspense.

Enter two strangers already on the beach (Aaron Pierre‘s rapper Mid-Sized Sedan and an unknown woman taking a dip). Next is the overly-paranoid (and racist) surgeon Charles (Rufus Sewell) with his much younger wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their daughter Kara (Mikaya Fisher), and his mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Add latecomers Jarin the nurse (Ken Leung) and Patricia the therapist (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and you have your vacationers in varying states of disarray rounded out by the yet to be mentioned Maddox (Alexa Swinton)—Trent’s older sister. The kids go to play. Charles squints his suspicion towards the Black man hiding by the rocks. And Guy and Prisca continue a long-simmering fight they’ve hoped this trip would ease so that they could inform their children of its origins.

A body is found. Distress and anxiety skyrocket. And suddenly everyone discovers the kids (six, eleven, and eleven respectively) have aged years in the matter of hours (Alex Wolff as Trent, Thomasin McKenzie as Maddox, and Eliza Scanlen as Kara). Shock can only shield them from the truth for so long before accepting the math once the number of deaths compound. They try to escape, but they just end up waking up in the sand with a headache every time they get too far from the beach. They’re trapped, aging at an exponential rate, and finding certain ailments (physical and mental) are being exacerbated by the rapid increase. Just when they should be working together to find a solution, their ability to remain level-headed becomes compromised beyond repair.

Those who’ve read the novel will be familiar with many events that follow, but not their execution. Call it an “Americanization” of a “European” narrative if you want, but Shyamalan replaces the sex with gnarly body horror and violence. He leverages the passing of time for a cool yet disturbing development courtesy of Charles’ pocketknife as well as making a couple of the bright familial-based spots from the source material excruciatingly heartbreaking in their reimagined on-screen reality. Shyamalan is ruthless in how he treats his characters’ inevitable demises, a choice that only augments the message at the core of the whole: time is precious. We spend so much effort thinking about the future and reminiscing about the past that we often let the present slip through our fingers.

The acting is superb with Leung and Amuka-Bird providing the calm, clinical precision of rationality on one end of the spectrum while Sewell and Lee devolve into uncontrollable and unreliable wildcards you can’t expect to stay sane on the other. Wolff, McKenzie, and Scanlen do great work portraying the fact that they are children in bodies twice their age while Bernal and Krieps astound as two people very much in and out of love due to middle-age putting their desires at the crossroads between fantasy and reality. Being trapped on this island will probably kill them, but it also becomes the one thing that can truly save them. They are the beating heart and soul of Old in a way that perfectly aligns with the novel’s melancholic conclusion.

And Shyamalan does film that conclusion here. He faded to black at one point to surprise me into thinking he stuck with uncertainty and the wealth of interpretations that come with the magic of a quality open ending. I won’t therefore lie and say I wasn’t disappointed to discover there were still twenty minutes left to supply the opposite. As I said above, though: he goes about it in the best way possible. Sound calculations that satisfy the plot with one true explanation sadly can’t also avoid minimizing the overall thematic strength that the unknown bolstered. But they also introduce an extra moral quandary that resonates in a post-COVID-19 world. So rather than fault the choice for what it diminishes, I’d rather applaud it for what it adds.

[1] Photo Credit: Phobymo/Universal Pictures. Caption (from left) Maddox (Thomasin McKenzie) and Trent (Alex Wolff) in Old, written for the screen and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Copyright © 2021 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Photo Credit: Universal Pictures. Caption (from left) Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) in Old, written for the screen and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Copyright © 2021 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Photo Credit: Universal Pictures. Caption Aaron Pierre as Mid-Sized Sedan in Old, written for the screen and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Copyright © 2021 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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