For about half of "Old," I was thinking "Yes, intriguing," "Creepy, sure" but, by the end, it was "Wait. All that was for this?"
Although he adapted the screenplay from a graphic novel by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters, "Old" is comfortable territory for director M. Night Shyamalan: Unsettling behavior. Dead folks. Ostentatious camera moves that remind us every frame includes exactly what he wants it to contain and nothing else, as exemplified by an extreme close-up of Rufus Sewell where there's only room for about one-third of his face.
Given the title and the advertisements, virtually everyone who attends "Old" will go in knowing it's set on a sunny, secluded beach where, for mysterious reasons, everyone ages rapidly. Shyamalan, who's always been adept at knowing how much information to give to or withhold from audiences, capitalizes on our advance knowledge by making every detail in the first half of "Old" fraught with meaning: vultures surveying the beach, a mention that it's surrounded by "natural anomalies," a kid who solemnly says he has no friends, a bus driver (played by Shyamalan) who ferries vacationers to the mystery beach, right past a sign that says "Keep Out."
Shyamalan's best works have an elegant simplicity as they blend humdrum life with the fantastic. (The guy was dead all along. Superheroes live among us. Aliens really are attacking.) Although most of the films have trappings of the supernatural as well as domestic drama, they're really murder mysteries and, like all mysteries, they boil down to a couple things: What's going on here? And is anyone smart enough to stop it?
The "What's going on?" part is skillfully done, largely on the strength of Mike Gioulakis' showy camerawork and the quietly committed acting of Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps as a couple who've brought their children to a resort for one last vacation before they split up.
But that complication, and the additional one of a whispered-about illness, is an early sign that Shyamalan doesn't have enough faith in his premise. And, as the movie progresses and we meet sunbathers played by Thomasin McKenzie, Ken Leung and others, he gums it up with so much stuff that we lose our bearings.
Is it a horror movie? A very expensive melanoma PSA? A cry of outrage at climate crisis? A warning about medical ethics (the film was written before the COVID-19 pandemic but filmed during it)? An "Our Town"-like reminder to live in the moment? A TED Talk about community responsibility?
And, while I'm asking questions, why is Sewell's character obsessed with remembering the title of the Western that starred Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson ("The Missouri Breaks," although I don't remember it well enough to know what it has to do with "Old")?
As Shyamalan tries to fit the pieces together, some scenes are unsettling and others are unintentionally funny. It's goofy to suggest, as Shyamalan does, that a museum curator is unable to get her head out of the past while her husband, whose equally on-the-nose profession is insurance actuary, can't get his out of the future.
Although "Old" isn't entirely successful, I enjoyed hanging with it. Shyamalan's originality and willingness to take material to extremes always make for compelling viewing, even if some of his swings are misses. No matter what the title tells us, the risks Shyamalan takes with "Old" feel utterly new.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13 (disturbing images, brief strong language, partial nudity, strong violence, suggestive content)
Where to watch: Now playing in theaters©2021 StarTribune. Visit startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.