One year for Father’s Day, the daughters of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan gave him “Sandcastle”, a 2011 French graphic novel by writer Pierre Oscar Levy and artist Frederik Peeters.
The writer-director of interesting films ranging from 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” to 2017’s “Split” turned him into “Old,” one of his most inspired endeavors in decades.
With very calculated camera work and constant tension, Shyamalan draws you into this story – about a group of people who find themselves trapped on a secluded beach, where they age quickly – and even brings you in while regularly making you uncomfortable.
In the film’s production notes, the writer-director says he wanted “Old” to sound like a two hour episode of “Twilight Zone” and, despite a few small script issues, he accomplishes this in a very entertaining way.
“Old” begins with a family about to enjoy their final vacation together, as Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) head for a breakup, which may not come as a complete surprise. for their 11-year-old children. her old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and her 6 year old son Trent (Nolan River).
When they arrive at Anamika Resort, located in a tropical part of the world, they are greeted in a ‘heavenly version’ by the resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten). Her assistant (Francesca Eastwood) offers adults cocktails which she says are based on their previously stated food and drink preferences.
Soon the family is encouraged by the manager to visit a private beach the next morning, telling them that he is only inviting certain guests to visit and that they can be taken by shuttle in the morning.
Also on the trip the next day are intense cardiothoracic surgeon, Charles, (Rufus Sewell); his elderly mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant); his much younger wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee) and their 6 year old daughter Kara (Kylie Begley). The shuttle driver (Shyamalan) leaves what appears to be an excessive amount of food for them to carry, but insists that the children eat a lot and have to take everything.
Also on the beach that day is a rapper calling himself Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) and longtime couple Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird).
While this ethnically diverse group of people come from different professional backgrounds, we’ll learn more about something some of them have a lot in common.
Rapid aging is first observed in children, who are indeed extremely hungry. Although the cameras under the control of cinematographer Michael Gioulakis – a regular collaborator of Shyamalan – avoid showing us this for a while, Maddox, Trent and Kara are noticeably taller and older (and are now played by Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff and Eliza Scanlen, respectively).
To say much more about what is going on at this beach would be spoiling, but understand that a lot of things are also and supernaturally strange.
This brings us to a minor frustration with the script: Once the weird becomes a frequent and regular occurrence, the characters continue to express utter disbelief with each new development for too long. It’s entertaining, as is the fact that the viewer often knows what’s going on with a character long before him, her or those around him.
While the performances of Krieps (“Phantom of the Thread”) and García Bernal (“Mozart in the Jungle”) help us to invest ourselves somewhat in the fate of their family, the most compelling acting is that of an intense Sewell (“The Man in the High Castle”) as Rufus becomes more and more of a problem for others he’s trapped with. In general, however, the set is large enough that it is difficult for anyone to make that much of an impression.
The real star is the management of Shyamalan.
With “Old,” he first worked away from his native Philadelphia, where his films tend to take place, much like the Apple TV + series he’s involved with, the hit-and-miss “Servant”. He shot “Old” during the novel coronavirus pandemic in the Dominican Republic, and maybe walking away energized him. He captivates with the film as he and Gioulakis constantly shift the focus from the frame to, from and around key characters and moments in the story.
Oddly enough, the ending of “Old” – which differs from that of “Sandcastle” – is where Shyamalan’s writing is stronger than its direction. As constructed, the important sequence doesn’t have the crackle and pop that it deserves, but from a storytelling standpoint, it’s largely satisfactory.
The day Shyamalan’s daughter gave him “Sandcastle” led, years later, to a film that should prove to be a gift to the filmmaker’s fans.
When: July 23.
Rated: PG-13 for strong violence, disturbing images, suggestive content, partial nudity and brief strong language.
Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes.
Stars (out of four): 3.