The writer-director makes a horror film a metaphor for parenting with surprisingly resonant results.
A few weeks ago, a picture of M. Night Shyamalan and his family at the premiere of his Apple TV show Servant surfaced on my social media timeline. All five of them dressed exquisitely, Shyamalan with his goofy dad smile, his Ph.D. wife Bhavna looking glamorous, and their three adult daughters, bright with talent, love, and creative potential.
Throughout his career’s various ups and downs, Shyamalan has focused on the family unit. It’s been the unifying thread between a remarkably varied collection of films and TV shows. One could argue that M. Night’s 2021 thriller Old is a culmination of decades’ worth of exploring what makes and breaks a family. It’s Shyamalan pondering his own family at its various stages, contemplating just how he got to where he is.
Old stars Vicky Krieps and Gael Garcia Bernal as Prisca and Guy, a married couple seemingly on the brink of divorce. They bring their kids Maddox (first played by Alexa Swinton) and Trent (first played by Nolan River) to an idyllic resort. The resort staff suggests they visit a secluded beach with other guests played by Rufus Sewell, Eliza Scanlen, Abby Lee, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Aaron Pierre. The guests start to experience strange incidents and come to the horrifying conclusion that they are aging rapidly. Worse, they cannot escape the beach. Tensions rise, health crises are exacerbated, and people start to die.
In the behind-the-scenes featurettes, the filmmaker talks about how his kids were usually the same ages as the children in his movies (noticeably in Signs). And now his daughters–especially filmmaker Ishana and musician Salekha who both worked on Old–are building their careers. Old reflects the thoughts of a dad with adult children. Yes, on its surface, the film is a pulpy, at times silly, and strange movie. However, at its core, it’s the perfect expression of the phrase, “life comes at you fast.”
Maddox and Trent, played at older ages by Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff, Embeth Davidtz, and Emun Elliott, experience about 40 or so years in their single day on the beach. There’s an inherent tragedy to that. Experiences rushed or lost. Milestones missed. Death brought into their lives so much earlier than typical.
I’ve heard some parents say that, with kids, the days are long, but the years are short. Old conjures that phrase, on overdrive. This day is interminable with countless competing priorities. Confusion, paranoia, and chaos spread rapidly throughout this group of unlucky individuals. And yet, in the blink of an eye, your six-year-old son is a teenager and then a young adult.
Shyamalan shows maturity with the emotional throughline and matches it with filmmaking above and beyond what he had done before.
The ordeal continuously tests Prisca and Guy’s family with pressures, internal and external. Somehow, they come out somewhat intact, like the family units in many of Shyamalan’s best works. Guy and Prisca ultimately work through their issues. In a roundabout way, the beach that accelerates time gives them enough to realize the pettiness of their problems and that their love is stronger than their dissatisfaction.
Despite its title, Old is a movie about childhood in two different ways. Trent is robbed of his childhood, going through significant life changes before he’s anywhere near ready. As a result, his journey to adulthood is rocky and traumatic.
Maddox, on the other hand, yearns for adulthood. One of the subtle grace notes in the film is how Maddox is gifted with emotional maturity along with her physical growth. She is perceptive and thoughtful, ultimately becoming the heart of the film. Perhaps it’s because even as an 11-year-old, Maddox looked at teens, impatient for her own time to flirt and date. I often feel saddest for her; her wish to grow up ironically fulfilled far too quickly. She was granted aging without all the experiences she hungered for.
Shyamalan shows maturity with the emotional throughline and matches it with filmmaking above and beyond what he had done before. He’s always been a very intimate filmmaker, inviting his audience into the perspective of his characters. The director ups that with Old, using a roving, jittery camera and precisely designed shot compositions. Because of the COVID guidelines during filming, every second was precious (befitting the movie’s theme) and the film reflects careful craftsmanship.
Take, for instance, a scene where the camera circles around the group during a particularly intense moment of chaos. Shyamalan gets playful with his angles, especially when hiding the reveal that Trent and Maddox have aged considerably. A bone-crunching death plays like body horror in a way that feels both absurdist and nauseating. The film is chockful of moments so horrifying yet dripping in goofy black comedy.
Shyamalan is a family man, living in Philadelphia and supporting his daughters with their careers. He cares about children’s stories, their perspectives, and their experiences. With Old, he is reckoning with his children’s aging and the inevitable time when they will need to care for him instead. The film is visceral, upsetting, and sometimes quite funny. It’s the work of a director who has matured and can reflect on his life and career.