Warning: spoilers to come.
For the time being The sixth sense wowed the audience’s minds with a shocking conclusion so well crafted that it helped incorporate the phrase “no spoilers, please” – M. Night Shyamalan’s name has been synonymous with the end of the twist. Old woman, his latest film, recalls the strengths that the author showed for the first time on The sixth sense: An advanced ability to hook viewers with a mystifying premise as well as the ability to explore big themes like mortality and regret in the space of a fright. Old woman Also illustrates the flaws of the director’s later endeavors: a penchant for problematic portrayals of mental health and rudderless camera work in the service of a surprise that seems undeserved.
Old woman starts off simple: a seemingly perfect family made up of mother Prisca (Vicky Krieps), father Guy (Gael García Bernal), their 6 year old son Trent (Nolan River) and 11 year old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton), travel to a paradise island for a hectic vacation. The island looks perfect: hotel staff throw a welcome party, free cocktails are offered, and the calendar is full of events such as parasailing, dance lessons, and more. Trent even quickly befriends a lonely local boy Idlib (Kailen Jude), who has some precious secrets about the island.
The friendly resort manager directs the family to a scenic private beach to visit. Upon arriving at the seaside oasis, however, not only do the underlying family pains come to the surface, but the supernatural sandy landscape seems to make them age quickly. (Two years every hour, to be exact.) Trapped on the beach with two other families, surrounded by natural barriers, the imprisoned vacationers fight for survival against the elements and against each other. In the horrors of Old woman is an imperative message: Savor every minute of life.
If only the film’s ending lived up to this lofty tenure. Instead, the slow burn of a journey the characters take is more informative than the final twist. Along the way, we discover that Prisca, diagnosed with a benign tumor, cheated on Guy and that the couple are on the verge of divorce; within earshot of their children, each accuses the other of blowing up the marriage. But on the beach, they come closer again, leaning on each other as Guy goes blind and Prisca goes deaf. By their old age death, which they reach in the span of a day by the seaside, they barely remember what they were arguing for, deciding it wasn’t so important in the context of their lifelong love.
A violent, schizophrenic cardiothoracic surgeon named Charles is also confined to the beach – providing an unpleasant though common trope of a character who appears in even the best Shyamalan movies. But Charles is not the most intriguing member of his family. Rather, it’s his vain bombshell wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee) to watch out for, the physical wear and tear of aging propelling her into a vicious mental breakdown, becoming something of a monstrous cave dweller. Is the horror filmmaker making a big statement about ephemeral beauty standards? If so, then why does Chrystal become the sole victim in the blatant body horror film, Suspiria style? (In another, more emotionally horrifying scene, a pregnant woman gives birth to a baby who, due to the temporal absurdity of the beach, dies with a minute of life on the beach.)
Shyamalan undermines many of his most compelling storylines in several mind-numbing missteps, including carefully brushing aside any lingering questions from the audience. It is revealed that, yes, other families have died on this beach – which is why rusty silverware, clothes and notebooks could be found buried in the sand. A found diary, filled with hand-drawn images, makes it clear why they are unable to escape: The surrounding rocks are magnetized, causing some black headaches to anyone who dares to walk through them. (Between Old woman and F9, magnets become an essential plotting device in 2021. at least with Old woman, there’s no clue we’re getting a bigger Shyamalan Cinematic Universe.)
But it was Trent’s sly suspicion that vacationers are being watched from a hill that left me moaning in the ether. We learn that the driver who took them to the beach for the first time – played by Shyamalan himself – spied on them all the time. He works for a group of scientists who have used the beach to try out various pharmaceutical drugs on sick and at-risk humans in a fast-paced environment. (It turns out that every family included a member with a pre-existing condition. The rapid aging of test subjects allowed drug companies to discover the “lifelong” effects of a drug in no time.) Families on the beach were just guinea pigs.
Trent and Maddox, now adults, the only two survivors at the end of the film, end up escaping the beach thanks to a clue from Idlib, who tells them to swim through coral reefs (not magnetized?). They arrive on the mainland to expose the infamous scientist to the world, but nothing in their final scene, of Trent and Maddox returning to their aunt’s house in a helicopter, is as emotionally satisfying as their time on the beach. (Why should we entrust these two adults to their aunt? How, exactly, did they denounce the bad guys of the pharma?) By inserting himself in the story, a technique common to Shyamalan, the director laughs he of its reputation. to care more about puzzles than characters? I don’t think he fully knows it. It has the premise but not the experiential basis to stick to a philosophical landing.