Review: ‘Old,’ Melancholy Masterpiece in Thriller Clothing

Gael Garcia Bernal, Vicky Krieps and Rufus Sewell star in the latest thriller from director M. Night Shyamalan. 

Adapting Sandcastle, a graphic novel by writer Pierre Oscar Levy and artist Frederik Peeters that was first published in 2010, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has made the best film of his career. 

After the worldwide success of his third feature, The Sixth Sense (1999), Shyamalan became tied to the notion that a climactic twist of some sort was to be expected in his films, whether through his own creative impulses and/or the requirements of a studio system that relies upon dependable factors and/or audience anticipation. This ethos was confirmed in Unbearable (2000) and then doubled down upon in Signs (2002), though his succeeding efforts felt strained in The Village (2004), woefully inadequate in Lady in the Water (2006) and risible in The Happening (2008). 

His first adaptation of material from another source, The Last Airbender (2010)  completely misfired, and his follow up After Earth (2013) felt wan and uninspired. He lowered his own ambitions in The Visit (2015) and mostly succeeded, leading to his true comeback, the zany thriller Split (2016), though Glass (2019) was far too cute and in love with its own universe of disturbed people. 

Now he takes a step back, returning to the more deliberate pace of his earlier films, while mixing it up with an unsettling variety of camera angles and perspectives, as well as a refreshingly different location for most of the action. All this would be mere dressing were it not that the story itself is a rueful meditation on a subject that we all must face. And that story is bolstered by finely-tuned performances by several actors who show what they can bring to a film when they have the narrative reason to do so. 

Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps star as a health-insurance actuary and a museum archivist, a married couple with children — a girl and a boy, aged 11 and 6, respectively — who are at a crossroads in their lives. They have taken a few days away from their home in Philadelphia, arriving at a tropical resort with the intention of preparing for the family’s next stage in life. 

Rufus Sewell portrays a medical doctor with a younger wife (Abbey Lee)  and a daughter, aged 11 or 12; they too have family things to discuss and plans to make. Ken Leong and Nikki Amuka-Bird play a third couple, a nurse and a psychologist. 

They all end up at a beautiful secluded beach for the day, where a rapper (Aaron Pierre) sits, awaiting the return of a new acquaintance who has gone swimming. Then something not-so-good happens, then something worse, and soon everyone’s plans are thrown into devastating turmoil as they face circumstances that may be fatal for all concerned. 

Shyamalan’s talents as a director have never been more in evidence. He orchestrates people and settings, as well as a large number of effects, merging them with themes that are universal and presented in an empathetic manner. There’s a big difference between a campfire story that ends with a “boo!” and a carefully-modulated narrative drama that draws in the viewer early and then builds on that premise, constructing a house that is much bigger than it appears to be.

M. Night Shyamalan has created a melancholy masterpiece in Old, a classic thriller that unsettles expectations and jangles nerves like there’s no tomorrow. Because there might not be. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on July 23, via Universal Pictures. For more information about the film, visit the official site