24 Hours in Hell August 3, 2021
On Old and First Date
ore than 20 years after his breakthrough, The Sixth Sense (1999), filmgoers can still count on the movies of M. Night Shyamalan to, with
some exceptions, at bare minimum have a singularly weird premise and, eventually, a wild-eyed plot twist. His latest, Old, pushes both those tried-and-true expectations to nearly parodic levels; you’re consistently laughing at the absurd places Shyamalan takes you to. In the film, a group of vacation-goers finds itself stranded on a secluded beach memorable not for its plentiful snorkeling opportunities or abnormally soft sand but, somehow, its inexplicable ability to rapidly age anyone who dares relax there. Just a few hours lounging on its shores can turn a toddler into a jaded teenager, a sprightly purse puppy into a dying dog. With its relatively unchanging setting and assembly of characters more figurine than person, Old
plays like a particularly kooky extended episode of The
Twilight Zone (1959-‘64). The universal fear being capitalized on this week is the inexorability of time; the cheesy, sort of sentimental-underneath-all-the-creepiness take-home message is that we should appreciate what we have until it’s too late.
The several subsets of people that find themselves at this oldasis (haha) are staying at the same overstaffed resort in an unspecified tropical locale — “better than Cancún!,” one character believes — where they’re all encouraged the same afternoon to go to what is described in vague terms as a special beach by the manager (Gustaf Hammarsten). Shyamalan puts an especial focus on the Cappa family, probably because theirs is seemingly the most conflict-driven backstory of everyone soon cursed to experience time’s relentlessness at a feverish pace. Parents Guy and Prisca (Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps) are divorcing soon and plan to announce their decision to their precocious children, Trent and Maddox (Nolan River and Alexa Swinton), at the end of the trip. (This’ll be their last vacation as a whole unit.) Prisca is also suffering from an undisclosed ailment; it sounds like she’s awaiting test results.
There isn’t anyone condemned to Old Beach (?) not facing afflictions of their own; the unofficial invite seems, at the least, to have some sort of illness. A nurse (Ken Leung) and his psychologist wife (Nikki Amuka-Bird) worry about her frequent epileptic flare-ups; a doctor (Rufus Sewell) traveling with a much-younger trophy wife (Abbey Lee, camping it up as a cartoonishly vain Influencer type), their daughter (Kyle Bailey), and his mother (Kathleen Chalfant) appears beset with unconfirmed schizophrenia. (This will dangerously manifest as the film progresses.) There is also a famous rapper with beautiful eyes who was already idling on the shores when everyone else arrives; he is named (and I love this) Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre). No one is that worried about how his hemophilia seems to have gotten worse since he’s arrived — his nose unceasingly oozes blood — because, almost as soon as everyone has picked their lounging spot for the afternoon, his girlfriend suddenly turns up, dead. Don’t even think about leaving: anyone who wanders too far outside the beach’s bounds passes out and then mystifyingly wakes up right at the place where they decided they were going to try to leave.
Inevitably, interpersonal conflict teems just as much as aging-related special effects and set pieces. Of the latter, my favorites are probably when one of the younger characters manages to get pregnant and then has the baby about five minutes later (life is a treadmill locked at full speed on Old Beach!), or the surreal (which is saying something) segment where one of the doomed elder women, whose calcium deficiency obviously only gets worse as the hours pass, tries to crawl through a pitch-black cave and accidentally winds up a human soft pretzel with glassy eyes. One may wish the body horror in Old were grosser than it is: many have pondered what David Cronenberg, cultishly beloved for his way of centering entire movies around bodily mutation and destruction, might have done with this material. Wisely, Shyamalan plays up the absurdity and general dizziness of his conceit for most of the runtime; Old has such an improbable amount of despair — the kind that makes you a little delirious — that silliness is a just-right counteractive. Akin to a movie like The Wicker Man (1973), it locates horror in comedy and comedy in horror. I wouldn’t want a version of Old that plays things totally straight.
The trouble with Old, though, is everything is so relentlessly cockeyed (this applies to the continually busy and odd-angle-loving camerawork, too), and so much of the dialogue is delivered with the unnatural affectations of someone trying to discreetly drop a hint, that we’re more often eagerly awaiting the expected Shyamalan plot twist than actually submerged in the drama. It feels emotionally unspecific (none of the characters strike us as especially real); the dialogue, funny as it can be, feels chintziest when it’s at its most personal. Old keeps you at a distance. In movies like The Visit (2015), Split (2016), and, of course, The Sixth Sense, part of the joy of their last-minute twists was that they naturally felt like a climactic scare in a movie comprising many smaller escalating ones. There was a pleasant crescendo, and so when the twist arrived it felt perfectly timed, like a Coke bottle finally erupting after a prolonged shake. But after a while — Old is a little long at 108 minutes — the explanation for why everything is happening becomes of more interest than what is happening.
When the twist does arrive, it’s satisfactorily insane, but it’s also doomed to feel almost over-explanatory. Plot twists of Shyamalan’s long-winded, expositional kind (think the tacked-on ending of 1960’s Psycho) are naturally double-edged swords. They do take your breath away, but they’re also so talky that they also can come off as sort of stilted. You wish that not every piece of the movie’s nightmarishness was so conspicuously laid out. The effectiveness of many great horror movies lies in how they methodically leave behind a few question marks, working to keep the viewer awake for a few extra hours by the things gone unseen and unheard. Still, Old's originality and committedly outré sense of humor are winning enough to keep you happy; even when it doesn’t totally work, I was glad to have a popcorn thriller steadily averse to convention, unafraid of trying something audacious and potentially failing. A confidently bold filmmaker — and I hate to say it — never gets old.
Gael García Bernal and Thomasin McKenzie in Old.
ave you ever watched a movie and it wasn’t clicking for you so aggressively that you felt while watching it like you and the film were a pair of magnets, scientifically incapable of ever connecting? First Date marked one
such occasion for me; it’s like my body alchemically forbade me from giving myself over to it. This low-budget, Tarantino-lite romantic comedy caper, written and directed by first-timers Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp, strains hard for big laughs, easy quirkiness, and an easy-to-root-for Gen Z lovers-on-run-style romance. It’s about a first date gone very wrong: the guy, in a transportation pickle (his parents won't let him borrow their car), buys a beat-up 1965 Chrysler before picking up the girl, only to discover, mostly because bullets suddenly start flying in his direction, that it is stuffed with Costco-portioned amounts of cocaine that many dangerous, battling-to-have-the-biggest-personality people around town want.
First Date ultimately encompasses a lot of straining; if this movie had a face the veins on its temples would bulge out like little worms. Almost all the performances are pitched too high; the comedy roundly equates bluster with wit; the central relationship is between characters that amount to stock-type ciphers never to transcend archetype. The guy is shy and painfully unassertive and has loved the girl secretly for so many years that his computer password is her name. The girl is headstrong and extra cool because she listens to surf rock on an 8-track player and boxes — something that will come in handy later — as a pastime. They’ll complete each other. At least the pair playing this incipient couple, two college students played by Shelby Duclos and Tyson Brown, are bright-faced and appealing. It’s hard to enjoy their work, though, if only because all you can think about is how you wish they were in a better-conceived project that served them better. A first date to remember in a movie to forget.
First Date: C-