Thursday, July 29, 2021

Life's a Beach: OLD

M. Night Shyamalan’s Old has the simple parable power of a Twilight Zone-style conceit, the cheap one-location resourcefulness of a low-fi 50’s sci-fi B-movie, and all the potential stiffness that that could imply. And yet it has an eerie affect through nothing more than suggestion and contemplation of a genuinely horrifying idea if you approach it at the level of earnestness its filmmaker did. What would it be like to live a lifetime in an afternoon? How would your mind race and scramble? How would your anatomy betray you? What would you do with the time given to you? Seeing life dimming as sunset draws near gives you a painfully clear metaphor. The clock is always ticking. So it is with the characters here, a few families and a handful of others driven to a secluded beach by their hosts at the tropical resort where they are vacationing. Once there it’s soon enough clear that the kids are growing up right before their eyes. And then the adults start greying and wrinkling and, well, what else could be happening? They’re aging too fast! Thus goes this nutty thought experiment with Shyamalan’s usual preoccupation with creepy shivers and familial sentimentality. But he’s also here up to subtextual freakiness with squirmy ideas and twisted implications. The movie may not cohere as well as Shyamalan’s best work, but it’s gross and propulsive and never flags in its fluid focus.

On the one hand, it has the trauma of aging from the view of parents who see their cute offsprings’ entire childhoods fly by. (Don’t wish your life away, the mother ironically warns before the beach.) On the other hand is the perspective of adolescences transmogrifying youngsters in practically a blink, so that a 6-year-old mind is broiling in hormones of a 15-year-old body. That’s messed up. The film never quite pushes as far as it could into depravity — Shyamalan’s just not that kind of horror filmmaker — but it’s plenty unsettling as the paradoxically claustrophobic beachfront becomes the site of a cataloging of all the ways aging can turn your body against you: tumors and dementia and seizures and heart attacks and broken bones and blindness and so on. As the day continues, the adults are in rough shape, and the children are thoroughly rattled. (Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie do good work playing stunted kids caught between ages, foreign in their own bodies.) Looking at them, it’s clear growing old is scary stuff. Sure, the movie has them behave in some clunky ways and dialogue can grow creaky and the progression of events sometimes wobbles. But one could easily hand wave that by asking if you’d handle being trapped in this situation any better. How would you even begin to reason your way out of this dilemma? You’re getting older by the second! I suspect there is a purposeful disconnect from the expected behavior. Do you think Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps and Rufus Swell, among others, would behave this awkwardly and unnaturally, all together and in the same pitch and register, for no reason? They’re lost in the melancholy and confusion of passing time as it rushes past. They hardly recognize what they’ve had before it’s gone.

There’s something bordering on chintzy to the premise and execution, but just when I found myself squinting to comprehend its sometimes-flimsy leaps, Shyamalan would win me back by hooking into the tingling emotions jolting the odd mystery of the piece. By the end, of course there’s a solution to all this. And though it wraps up the events with a tight semi-silly but workable conclusion, it doesn’t exactly satisfy (and also clangs a bit against the tenor of the times — I wonder how it’ll play a decade hence). But the journey there is so persistently off-kilter, adrift from convention, with characters totally at a loss to describe what they’re seeing or to understand a way out. Who can’t relate? And Shyamalan matches the confusion with a sincerity attuned to that state: with long takes falling into jittery handheld shots, 360 degree pans that blur and smear, a lingering on bodies in ways that matter-of-factly clue us into shocking changes by revealing a curvier hip or a freshly bulging belly. The shot framing our group of characters through a decomposed rib cage is typical of the attention to highlighting the potential for decay in all of us, the bars that hold us captive. Even when scripts get thin, Shyamalan remains a filmmaker with a distinct visual sense and a finely honed sense of space and storytelling within the wide screen. To see a movie that could’ve easily been disposable or even unworkable on the page lifted to intriguing and compelling and downright interesting through sheer force of filmmaking makes me wish we had more directors working at this level.

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