M. Night Shyamalan has been making Hollywood thrillers for more than 20 years, and despite his career’s ups and downs, he’s never lost the power to wring tension out of the simplest situations: someone opening a door, a shape walking across a TV screen, a scowl shifting into a smile. Early on in Old, his latest macabre roller-coaster ride, a trio of children play freeze tag on a beach, ducking and weaving and laughing while one of them stands motionless, waiting to spring back to life. It’s a knowing hint at the terror that’s about to unfurl—the sense that time is about to slip out of whack.
The beautiful, secluded beach where Old takes place is powered by one horrifying logic: If you stay on it, you get old—fast. Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps), on a sumptuous vacation with their two preteen children, arrive one morning and lay down their towels; within a few hours, their kids have gone through puberty and their own faces are scored with wrinkles. Shyamalan has made movies featuring ghosts, alien invaders, scary trees, and comic-book villains, but with Old he’s hit on a premise that is devastating in its simplicity. Everyone’s afraid of aging, right?
The film, based on the graphic novel Sandcastle, by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, is maybe Shyamalan’s best since his (supremely underrated) 2004 hit, The Village. In Old, Guy and Prisca, along with the other beachgoers, have to figure out an escape before their age kills them. But they’re also tormented by the existential reality that their partnership—and their children’s many developmental milestones—is flashing by.
What parent hasn’t had that feeling grip them with terror? Old is a perfect, blunt title, but this film could just as easily be called They Grow Up So Fast, given the melancholy undertones of its often grisly plot. Shyamalan riddles his characters with insecurities and doubts about their place in the world, then hits the fast-forward button on their lives, giving them minutes to realize big emotional truths. One can almost hear him cackling in the background (and, as usual, he’s cast himself in a small role) as he continually poses this question to the audience: What would you do if you had only one day to live the rest of your life?
The beach (the film was shot in the Dominican Republic) is a perfect metaphorical landscape for that question. It’s peaceful and alluring, but unfeeling—a gorgeous spot to while away your time before being carried out by the waves and forgotten. Shyamalan and his cinematographer, Mike Gioulakis, take every advantage of the negative space that this big open canvas provides—the camera darts between characters, bobbing and swaying, lending the sense of time rapidly falling out of reach. Rather than swallowing his characters up in superwide shots to emphasize their insignificance, Shyamalan has them dominate the frame, standing so tall that the screen cuts off at their heads and feet, as if they’re growing so quickly, they literally can’t be contained.
That’s the kind of visual acuity that has always made Shyamalan a far better filmmaker than his reputation suggests. The early run of twist-centric horror that made his name—The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village—led many to think of him as a one-trick pony, and subsequent big-budget flops, such as The Last Airbender and After Earth, saw him retreat to making smaller genre works. But that resulted in some of the most fruitful material of his career: thrillers such as The Visit and Split, which punched above the weight of their silly plotting because of Shyamalan’s skill with staging and atmosphere.
Yes, Old has plenty of the clunky dialogue that defines Shyamalan’s work—his characters often can’t help but overexplain what’s going on around them. It probably runs 10 minutes too long, with an ending that works too hard to lay out the silly reasoning behind the beach’s supernatural properties. None of that matters. The central conceit of Old has so much juice, and Shyamalan gets to explore so many fun—if sadistic—avenues over the course of one very long day. It’s his most ambitious work in years, wrapped in the delightful, tawdry packaging of a pulpy thriller.