It’s usually poor form when filmmakers attempt to respond to either critics or audiences (or both!) through their own movies. M. Night Shyamalan did exactly this with a certain side character in 2006’s Lady in the Water, one who just happened to be a film critic and who just happened to be the snobby, unlikable, misanthropic little jerk who singlehandedly prevented the good guys from accomplishing their goal for much of the runtime because of how confidently wrong he was. Not very subtle, eh?
In all likelihood, this may have stemmed from the critical rejection of Shyamalan’s previous film just two years earlier, The Village. Full disclosure: I actually believe Shyamalan had every right to be upset by how cruelly he was treated as a result of that film. The deceptively romantic gothic horror movie has received quite a bit of overdue reappraisal in the years since but, even then, stooping to that level of petty in Lady in the Water was…a bit much.
The recent release of Old sees the filmmaker in generally higher standing than he was fifteen years ago, thanks to self-financing his own projects and releasing a string of solid box office hits to claw his way back out of “director’s jail.” However, it’s fair to say the general consensus has yet to catch up to the passionate fervor of fans, particularly after the mixed reception of Glass. The release of his latest film doesn’t really represent a crossroads for the divisive writer/director but, nevertheless, it is a notable entry in his career.
Old marks the point where Shyamalan has learned to answer his most vocal critics by wryly — and effectively — embracing his perception as the heel. For the most part, the film is all the better for it.
Major spoilers follow for Old.
No Funny Business?
The premise of Old revolves around a small group of families on vacation at a resort. A tempting offer of a private, “once in a lifetime” beach excursion brings the cast to the desolate sands that, wouldn’t you know it, provide the seemingly inescapable setting for the time-skewing horrors that await. In classic Shyamalan fashion, the journey to that point (and even throughout!) is sneakily self-aware and funny…just not in the way audiences might expect.
The opening drive to the resort is filled with on-the-nose dialogue as Gael García Bernal‘s Guy and Vicky Krieps‘s Prisca wax poetic about seizing the moment and waiting for their children to grow up. Moments like these are eye-roll-inducing in the extreme to anyone who’s seen a trailer for Old, but I would humbly suggest that that’s the entire point. M Night. Shyamalan is in on the joke throughout the entire film.
As is the filmmaker’s trademark, none other than Shyamalan himself cameos as the resort driver who takes our protagonists to the apparently idyllic beach in the first place.
Initially, this appears to be another sly in-joke, playing with our expectations of everything to come while also referencing the filmmaker’s inherent responsibility in causing so much fictional pain and suffering to his own characters. After all, Shyamalan’s clueless driver doesn’t even bother to help the group carry their belongings to the actual beach! He abruptly and amusingly leaves them within walking distance of the supposed paradise, with a parting promise of returning to pick them up either when they call or at the end of the day.
Because this is a horror movie, we, as knowledgeable viewers, already know that neither of those things will end up happening. But for those living in the moment who may not even be aware of the director cameo, this is just another turn of the screw.
Casting the Villain
What starts as a meta wink and nod at genre trappings eventually turns into something else entirely. Trent (alternately played by Nolan River at age 6, Luca Faustino Rodriguez at 11, Alex Wolff at 15, and Emun Elliott as an adult) is the first to notice that the beachgoers seem to be under constant surveillance. Though these hints are somewhat overplayed at the expense of tension, we soon get a far-off glimpse of what appears to be Shyamalan’s unnamed driver watching the nightmares unfolding from a clifftop. From our vantage point, the filmmaker stand-in has gone from inadvertently putting these characters in harm’s way to knowingly standing by and allowing it to happen.
By the time the deaths pile up to almost comical levels and Trent and his sister Maddox (Alexa Swinton aged 11, Thomasin McKenzie age 16, Embeth Davidtz as an adult) are the only ones left, Shyamalan the filmmaker finally allows us to break away from the suffocating perspective of the beach and witness the full extent of Shyamalan the character’s culpability. Armed with fancy-looking field equipment and computer displays, the sinister driver is revealed to have indeed been taking note of everything our poor protagonists have been going through and reporting back on their pitiful deaths. As the now-adult Trent and Maddox desperately attempt to swim away to freedom, Shyamalan impassively watches for signs that the two siblings have drowned and arrogantly assumes that the job is done. In doing so, he officially takes the place of Lady in the Water’s self-satisfied film critic stand-in (played by the always-delightful Bob Balaban) who caused so many problems in that previous movie.
But in one last ironic turn, Trent and Maddox surviving to blow the whistle on the entire racket means that Shyamalan is the one inadvertently bringing trouble upon the movie’s larger villains. Rather than pointing the blame at others as before, he’s now specifically written it so that he’s now the one responsible.
A final reveal puts Shyamalan’s villain rather low on the chain of command, at least compared to the higher-ups in charge of the resort/shady pharmaceutical company who’ve been using the rapid aging qualities of the beach to perform tests on countless unwitting visitors afflicted with various diseases. As far as reveals go, this was perhaps a little too straightforward for my liking. All things considered, though, his minor appearance and the part he had to play in things certainly feels like a pointed message.
Old is many things: a story adapted by a son wrestling with the aging of his elderly parents; a fun (if frustratingly emotionally distant) horror romp; but above all, it feels like a relatively embattled filmmaker finally throwing his hands up, playing to the crowd, and having a blast while he does it.
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