[Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Old.]
In M. Night Shyamalan‘s Old woman, there are three intersecting mysteries. The first mystery is why a specific beach is aging the people who inhabit it at a very accelerated rate. The second mystery is why people pass out and end up on the beach every time they try to leave. The third mystery is why these people were specifically brought to this beach in the first place.
To the film’s credit, the first two questions are answered throughout the story. The reason characters age quickly is that there is something about this particular range that causes cells to age at an accelerated rate. It does not affect hair or nails as they are ‘dead cells’, but it can cause cuts and scars to heal instantly or horrific bone repair in seconds. The reason for the blackouts has something to do with magnetism which essentially causes intense pressure similar to how someone trying to re-acclimatize too quickly would pass out.
The answer to the third mystery comes at the end. Like the adult versions of Trent (Emun Elliott) and Maddox (Embeth davidtz) realize that the coral could provide protection against the magnetism causing the power cuts, they decide to swim for it, but are presumed to be drowned by a hotel employee (Shyamalan), who observed the events from afar. He reports that all the subjects in Trial 73 perished and are returning to base.
It turns out the resort town, Anamika, is a front for a pharmaceutical company called Warren & Warren. They get patient information when people pick up their prescriptions, and then they offer people a great rate for an alluring tropical getaway. When people arrive, they are subconsciously fed a new medicine. The next day, they are then taken to the beach where aging is accelerated. The point of all of this is to enable Warren & Warren to speed up clinical trials. They note that an antiepileptic drug they gave Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) worked eight hours, which equates to sixteen years. So our characters are basically lab rats for Warren & Warren. Their existence can be erased (this part in particular seems silly because if entire families went missing every time they visited this resort, it would likely set off a red flag or two), and Warren & Warren continue to test different drugs on different diseases over the time range.
However, Trent and Maddox managed to leave the beach and return to the resort, and they brought with them the diary of a previous victim who recorded the names of other people, which corroborates the story of Trent and Maddox. . They give the diary to a cop staying at the complex, he discovers it contains the names of missing persons, and the people at the complex are quickly arrested. Trent and Maddox return home where they will be reunited with their aunt, who will likely be surprised to find that her nephew and niece are now adults. The end.
It’s not a particularly good resolution just because the movie doesn’t really need it. For his part, Shyamalan told us that he always had this ending in mind because if the source material, the graphic novel Sand castle, does not include these events, he thinks they were implicit, so he chose to make the implications literal:
“It was always that end. For me, the graphic novel essentially had no end, and explained nothing. There were a few frames where they were insinuating something, so I kept writing that side of the story in my head. I’m going, ‘Oooh. It must mean that. It must mean that something else is happening. So for me it was really graphic novel like a painting that was unfinished so the end came from there. It was always this version. And there were different rhythms of how to convey that ending. And there were different versions to convey that ending, but it was always that ending.
But I think Shyamalan made a bad decision here because that ambiguity would allow us to focus more on the themes of the picture and leave us thinking about what time and mortality means to us. It might not be uplifting to leave adult Trent and Maddox on the beach to live their last day, but at least it’s an ending that makes us think about our own lives and what we consider important. When you move the ending to “And there was an evil drug company behind it all the time!” Is the answer to a question that the film never asked beyond a superficial explanation. Yes, I guess it’s good to have that answer, but it’s a catharsis-free resolution. Knowing that the folks at the fake hotel went to jail is heartwarming I guess, but is that what Old woman is supposed to be about? If anything, all we’ve seen so far is that life isn’t fair and justice is fickle. There is no good reason that all these people on the beach are dead.
It could be argued that Shyamalan is making an ironic revelation here and that those who died on the beach have had their lives cut short in favor of medical discoveries that would lengthen the lives of countless more. But again, does this utilitarianism of the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few really what this movie was about? The emotional core of the film is really between Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), and how the bitterness and enmity between them doesn’t really matter when time is of the essence. At the end of the day, all that really matters is the people you love and the importance of family. It has nothing to do with some infamous drug company that uses people as unwitting participants in medical experiments.
KEEP READING: How M. Night Shyamalan Was Ahead Of The Superhero Curve With ‘Unbreakable’
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