OLD is defeated by its Young.
“I’d rather watch his movies than some dumb remakes of movie classics that don’t need to be made.“
– Jenna Michie, youtube comment.
A six-year-old boy says, “I can do a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, which is a considerable thing to do…” Well, it IS. But who talks like that?! Okay, maybe he’s written as a smart kid, but then, the actor needs the chops to make his lines sound organic, rather than rote with no understanding behind his eyes. This young actor, Nolan River, is the number one downfall in M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller, OLD.
OLD (written for the screen and directed by Shyamalan) finds a group of vacationing people on a secluded tropical beach, who realize that the beach is making them age rapidly (1 year every half-hour), yet who cannot leave, and must deal head-on with birth, death and debilitation.
The great Gael García Bernal (COCO) leads the cast as Guy, in a failing marriage with wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps, PHANTOM THREAD), with two kids in tow, Trent (River) and Maddox (Alexa Swinton), unaware of their parents’ impending divorce; mentally unstable Charles (Rufus Sewell, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE) is a doctor with a trophy wife (Abbey Lee, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) and their own 6-year-old girl Kara; Ken Leung (INHUMANS) is a nurse, with psychologist wife Nikki Amuka-Bird (GOLD DIGGER), who suffers seizures; a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre, KRYPTON) has been on the beach since dawn.
The discovery of Sedan’s drowned date sparks the uneasiness on the beach, at first straightforward revulsion of a dead body and potential foul play, but escalating quickly to the harrowing discoveries that the kids are aging uncontrollably and that no matter how they try, there is no way off the beach.
My initial notes about OLD: “a dynamite premise, executed poorly.” But I was wrong. OLD is actually executed quite well, with some very difficult acting performances (how could we really know how a person would react to the psychological horror of seeing their 11-year-old daughter suddenly as a 16-year-old?), eerie passages, and filmmaking flourishes characteristic of Night’s enigmatic and meticulous crafting… it’s a chilling tale – except for Nolan River’s line-reads, which destroy the movie in its infancy.
River is 10 years old, playing 6-year-old Trent. And in real life, he IS a smart kid – reads voraciously, plays piano – but his inauthentic onscreen persona is teeth-grinding. His first line, “Her spontaneity has been stripped from her” sends klaxons ringing in our brains: What six-year-old talks that way?! Firstly, it was a bad decision for Night to put adult language in the kid’s mouth, because, secondly, odds are against Night finding another Haley Joel Osment to speak Night’s lines with such conviction. And thirdly, River’s vapid performance as Trent taints our perception of the three other actors that play older versions of him, Luca Faustino Rodriguez, Alex Wolff and Emun Elliott. I watched and rewatched OLD to check my assumption, and found myself marveling at the tragic performances of all three older Trents (especially Wolff). And I realized that the movie as a whole is being savaged by critics only due to its early scenes and dialogue with River! (Side-note: impressive casting to find four versions of Trent who all look like the same person; same goes for all the growing kids.)
A major misstep is young Trent asking strangers, “What are your names and what do you do for a living?” his clunky delivery not allowing suspension of disbelief, making us see the line as obvious foreshadowing. The filmmaking is masterful, but Night either needs a script doctor for his dialogue, or a better young actor.
Other moments that ring untrue are when the kids display a preternatural insight into being adults, as when Kara laments to Trent: “We didn’t have a prom or a graduation – there are so many memories we didn’t have – it’s not fair.” She may be physically an adult, but her mind is still 6 – and what 6-year-old has ever had the wherewithal to comprehend life-experience and loss?
Speaking of young kids, there’s Francesca Eastwood, Clint’s daughter, who played alongside him as a cute little girl in TRUE CRIME (“We go fast!”), now a young woman, perfect features, and with that Charles Bronson vein going down her bicep—wait, what?!
Night casts himself as the bus driver, ferrying tourists to the beach and then monitoring their progress secretively from the nearby cliffs.
– – – – – SPOILERS – – – – –
OLD is based on the 2011 graphic novel Chateau de Sable (aka Sandcastle), by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters. In the novel, the final character alive builds a sandcastle, resigned to her fate – the novel title and the sandcastle itself a metaphor for human endeavor: we toil over it, sweating the small stuff of the ramparts and moats and walls, all for it to disintegrate with the next high tide. So too our lives. Ephemeral at best, atoms held together by attraction no stronger than dampness, until an inevitable discorporation of cells, returning us to the cosmos… Night loses this existential metaphor in his movie; although his characters build a sandcastle near the finale, it is just for the heck of it, after they have identified a potential escape from the beach. So instead of thematic introspection, our chests are constricting at this whimsical waste of time (that is costing them 1 or 2 years of their lives) when they should be trying to escape. On the other hand, maybe they believe they’re gonna die trying, and are trying to savor one last grasp at innocence (they are, after all, still 6 and 11 in their heads) – and if that be the case, we’re still missing the metaphor.
Further diminishing the metaphor, Night adds a coda to the movie that the novel doesn’t have: the beach is being used by a Pharma company to test drugs on patients with chronic diseases. With the cove surrounded by a strange type of rock that causes rapid aging, it allows the unethical drug company (led by Gustaf Hammarsten – he was BRUNO’s boyfriend!) to monitor their meds over a lifetime in the space of a day.
The novel’s original theme is actually more horrifying than Night’s handling of it, because Sandcastle gives no explanation for its tragedy. In that story, there is no grander purpose to human life other than to exist and die, meaninglessly. Night mollifies that blow by having the deaths of his characters mean something to those who will be saved by the drugs they are beta-testing unknowingly. He also mitigates the drug company’s inhumane testing procedures by stating that they are, in fact, saving millions of lives with their successful drugs. Moral ambiguity is good, but not when it robs your tale of pure horror.
If there’s anything we can take away from this movie, it’s that if you’re the male with the biggest muscles (Mid-Sized Sedan), you can be arbitrarily snuffed out by the guy with the biggest brain (the schizo doctor); it’s that the woman with the banging-est body will die contorted and unattractive; it’s that if you’re a bad actor when you’re young, you’ll definitely get better as you get… old.