Everyone likes to talk about the big twist at the end of an M. Night Shyamalan movie: Was it good for you? Did you see it coming? Did it turn the rest of the movie into nonsense? (In some Shyamalan films, no twist is required to do that.) Yet for all the attention paid to Shyamalan’s trademark teasing grand finales, it’s the little twists in his movies — the ones that happen along the way — that can determine whether the film in question is spinning a yarn worth telling or just spinning its wheels.
In “Old,” Shyamalan’s latest is-it-clever-or-just-dumb-or-is-it-both? slow-burn creepshow, there’s a moment you either get past or you don’t. Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are on vacation at a ritzy tropical-island resort along with their two children, 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River). There’s a bit of drama the kids don’t know about; their folks are on the verge of splitting up, and Prisca has had a health scare. Nevertheless, the couple is putting on a good face, and they embrace an offer made by the unctuous Euro resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) to take a day trip to a special beach hidden behind a spectacular rocky cliff on the other side of the island. (The van driver is played by Shyamalan, who is now 50. For what it’s worth, he looks remarkably young.)
On the beach, they’re joined by a handful of the hotel’s other guests, and that’s when bizarre things start to happen. The body of a nude swimmer shows up dead in the water. Anyone who stands in the adjacent canyon blacks out. Oh, and the two children suddenly look a lot older — they’re now 16 and 11.
What’s going on? The beach possesses a mysterious quality that ages anyone who’s on it. Every half an hour, you get one year older. It’s most noticeable with the children, but after a while mention is made of the small tumor that was detected in Prisca’s abdomen. It was three centimeters; now it’s the size of a golf ball — and then, minutes later, the size of a grapefruit. (It’s growing as quickly as she ages.) So what happens? Charles (Rufus Sewell), an eccentrically intense and jabbering physician, decides to operate — right there on the beach, without anesthesia. (It turns out that an incision will heal instantly.) Boom! — the tumor is out, just like that. But since the audience is still absorbing the premise of the movie — that just about everyone on the beach will be heading toward the grave within 24 hours — the fact that this impromptu surgery just sort of…happens, because Shyamalan thought it would be a cool idea, may stick in your moviegoing craw. It’s a twist more fanciful than logical, but Shyamalan doesn’t seem to care. He’s holding your attention!
“Old,” like most Shyamalan movies, has a catchy hook along with some elegant filmmaking gambits. But instead of developing his premise in an insidious and powerful way, the writer-director just keeps throwing things at you. That nude swimmer was the paramour of a famous rapper named Mid-Size Sedan (Aaron Pierre), who Charles the surgeon wastes no time accusing of murder. The movie cues us to think that’s a racist idea, yet isn’t above exploiting it for suspense. And why is the rapper’s nose bleeding? Charles and his high-maintenance wife, Chrystal (Abbey Lee), have an 11-year-old daughter of their own, Kara (Mikaya Fisher), and before long she and Trent, who are now teenagers, have hooked up, and she has gotten pregnant. And where are Guy and Prisca in all this? Bizarrely, they don’t look any older. Reference is made to wrinkles, and after a while we glimpse a few, but basically these two — and the other adults — just kind of remain the people they were, which seems extremely odd in a movie that is otherwise about such dramatic developments.
When you nitpick a thriller, you can sound like one of those people who Hitchcock referred to, with weary futility, as “the plausibles” (as if plausibility were the only thing that mattered to them). But “Old,” even once you accept where it’s going, lacks shape and consistency. It has a compelling off-kilter visual style, with the camera hinting at things just out of sight, but the characters keep explaining who they are in cliché psychotherapeutic soundbites; at times, the film threatens to turn into the “Twilight Zone” version of a 12-step meeting. The characters are trapped on that beach, and Shyamalan creates a convincing claustrophobia, but part of it is that you wish most of them were better company.
The real trouble with the movie is that its rules are so arbitrary. A corpse decays to bone in half an hour. The adults all age by barely visible increments. Each family, tellingly, has a malady — but some are physical, some mental. (Charles the surgeon is a head case who keeps wondering, for some godforsaken reason, which movie costarred Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando. It was “The Missouri Breaks,” for anyone playing movie “Jeopardy.”) One character ends up with a mass of contorted limbs like something out of a demonic-possession film. Another scales the vertical rock face to escape, then fatally falls asleep during the climb. A few of these issues come into focus with the big twist, which for a moment makes villainous characters look weirdly benign, then villainous again. More than ever, though, the twist in a Shyamalan film makes one ask: Was it worth sitting through the entire movie for this? Or is that feeling getting old?