Never has a director been so connected to a conceit as M Night Shyamalan has to the twist.
At first, it was the twist ending, showing it’s value and strength in films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, and then how it can fail to bring a weak story to a strong conclusion in The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening. It wasn’t just the films that twisted and turned, it was also Shyamalan’s own career, the twist being the collective confusion of his audience when he fell off a creative cliff.
Then another twist happened: the one-two punch of the found footage gem that is The Visit, and the solid Split anchored by a brilliant performance from James McAvoy. He was back, and, while not better than ever, at least releasing decent films. It was a career comeback that, for a director, is almost unprecedented. Then there was Glass: possibly the film that beautifully represented both sides of the director’s creative process: high concepts, great performances from some, not so great from others, and a twist that ruins a film that was teetering on the edge of doom for most of its runtime. All of this is to say that Shyamalan’s career is fascinating, so when I saw the concept of Old, paired with a cast full of actors I like, I thought this might be an easy win for the director. But, of course, there was a twist.
Since returning to the cinema, I have had a rose-tinted view of the movies that I’ve seen there. So starved was I for the experience, I even went to see the Escape Room sequel and enjoyed it far more than it deserved. It was a tranquil time in which my critical claws were blunted and that was just fine, thank you very much. Old ruined this feeling. In fact, it took a steaming shit on this feeling. A vulgar reaction, but it’s easier than saying the film released a gaseous amount of excrement on my fragile critical faculties. Actually, the latter is much more fun to say but it is needlessly overwritten, showing of nothing for the sake of nothing, and there is the rub. Old looks great, it has a great hook as we see what happens when a group of people of different ages grow old in the space of a day, and it’s beautifully shot. But Old is a complete failure because the writing is utterly dreadful.
Old has a great cast of actors which I’m going to list along with a film recommendation from their filmography that shows that Old is not the actor’s fault: Gael Garcia Bernal (Amores Perros), Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread), Alex Wolff (Hereditary), Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), Rufus Sewel (A Knight’s Tale), Ken Leung (Inside Man), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Luther)…you get the point. There is this myth – that, before Old, I used to believe in – that a great actor can make even the worst dialogue sound good. Well, here are seven actors with different careers and strengths and ages, and not one of them could salvage this awful script. Old’s writing is so terrible that my heart went out to everyone I know who wants to create great art in any medium because, on the evidence of this alone, they don’t need to try so hard.
Which got me thinking – how does Shyamalan keep getting away with this? The answer is depressingly simple: good, bad, or Airbender, a Shyamalan film is always a draw for audiences. I could understand that making A Sixth Sense might get you a pass for a while, but that was twenty-one years ago. Once again. the answer is depressingly simple: it’s our fault. Don’t believe me? Fine, an experiment. Avatar: The Last Airbender had something of a cultural revival last year. I watched it for the first time and I now hold it up as one of the greatest stories ever told. If you are a fan of the show ask yourself this: after you finished did you hate watch Shyamalan’s terrible adaptation, The Last Airbender? I know some of you did, there’s hundreds of Youtube reaction videos about it. All that did was improve the movie’s earnings proving to studios that it doesn’t matter if Shyamalan makes a classic, or one of the worst films of all time. We will still watch it. I’m just as bad. I paid to see Old. I gave him my money. There’s your twist ending.
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By Kevin Boyle
(header image via The New Yorker)