Review: 'Old' shows director M. Night Shyamalan at his best and worst

The director has had plenty of hits in his careers, but many misses too.

What if you took your family to a beach resort -- a secluded spot in a tropical paradise -- and suddenly you all started getting old fast, with your young children sprouting into adults and your own faces covered in lines and wrinkles. Horrible, right?

"Old," now available only in theaters, sure knows how to hook you. That it fails to hold you for two hours is the fault of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, who's been living in the shadow of his 1999 blockbuster, "The Sixth Sense," which knew how to hook and hold from the second Haley Joel Osment eyeballed Bruce Willis and said, "I see dead people."

It's not that Shyamalan hasn't done decent work in the interim. A solid case can be made for "Signs," "Unbreakable" and, in recent years, "The Visit" and "Split." But the clunkers -- the infamous "The Last Airbender" and "After Earth" -- far outnumber the hits.

"Old" shows the India-born and Pennsylvania-raised filmmaker at his best and worst. Shot with a poet's eye and a tin ear for dialogue, this suspense thriller sets up a provocation that Shyamalan lacks the ability to develop much less sustain.

Shot in the Dominican Republic during the pandemic, "Old" gathers a terrific international cast, led by Gael Garcia Bernal ("Mozart in the Jungle") as Guy and Vicky Krieps ("Phantom Thread") as Prisca. They're a couple trying to hide her illness and their shaky marriage from 11-year-old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6-year-old son Trent (Nolan River).

Trent enjoys playing with Kara (Kyle Bailey) -- she's also 6 -- when her family joins his on the beach after being dropped off by a resort van driver (Shyamalan himself). Dad Charles (a seething Rufus Sewell) is a cardiothoracic surgeon traveling with his aging mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) and his bikini-clad, much-younger wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee).

The tension is thick enough to cut when the families, strangers to each other, spot a man in the distance. He's a rapper known as Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who looks traumatized when a girl he picked up at the resort washes up dead on the shore.

Is he a killer? The doc thinks so, though he shows a mind in crisis by wielding a menacing pocket knife. Guy exerts a calming influence, as do the last people to arrive on the beach, Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and her husband Jarin (Ken Leung), a nurse who treats her epileptic seizures. Take note of how many characters suffer from physical or mental disorders.

Everyone is seized with panic when they realize that there is no cell service, that they cannot leave the beach without fainting dead away, that they are aging two years every hour and that Trent, Maddox and a now-pregnant Kara have aged into sexually aware teens, fully grown and well-played by Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie and Eliza Scanlen, respectively.

That's the setup for a movie whose subsequent shocks won't be spoiled here. What shocked me is how thinly Shyamalan develops characters and how clumsily he handles potent themes about sudden death and the collapse of time that should resonate powerfully in the COVID-19 era. Even his argument for family values in the face of global youth worship feels rote.

Known for his twist endings, Shyamalan supplies a lame one here, though the film's source material -- a graphic novel called "Sandcastle" -- maintained its haunting mystery by being open-ended. You leave "Old" wondering how a brilliant premise could end with such a botch job.

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