An M. Night Shyamalan ‘happening’ is a movie event in short supply these days. With Old, audiences are in for the time of their lives.
Shyamalan’s filmography can pretty much split into four categories: the household classics, like The Sixth Sense and Signs; the surprising box-office busters, like Split and Glass; the underrated borderline masterpieces, like Unbreakable and The Village; and the disasters, like After Earth and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Theatres were once home to such better-or-worse range. Cowboy hats for capes, prestige drama for… capes; over time, the lens of big-screen cinema has often narrowed into course-corrected, crowd-pleasing/appeasing ‘content’ – Shyamalan operates on the fringes, like an eerie gale you barely see coming.
Like all of Shyamalan’s stories, it’s best I keep it brief (and not just because I’ve been told to do so): in Old, two families take a trip to a gorgeous cove where people age over the course of a single day, leaving rot and bones in their wake.
It’s a summer movie to live and die for; a beautiful beach getaway people across the world have only dreamed of for the past year, with a tinge of, you know, mankind’s devastating mortality. The filmmaker’s work always gets strong reactions, and the reception to something as uncomfortable as Old will be fascinating.
When it comes to audiences, Shyamalan ‘never tries to guess that,’ the writer-director told UNILAD, with a laugh.
‘The provocative nature of it, I guess I’m drawn to that – that uncomfortable space. You were so spot-on to start it like that, to say it’s keeping you off-kilter and edgy, where I don’t use music and I use it, the angles, the performances, the tone of it – it’s all calibrated to be uncomfortable,’ he said.
Love or loath, Shyamalan is just happy when people are talking. ‘I enjoy that lack of ease about it, it makes it so the movies are very resonant. They’re talked about for a long time and they stay with you for a long time. That’s the greatest compliment for me. I’m excited! I hope it makes people talk,’ he added.
This is in no way a loaded statement for Old, but Shyamalan’s legacy is built upon some whopping endings; The Sixth Sense has arguably the ultimate twist and Split came with armrest-grabbing rapture by the credits.
When asked how he feels about that, the director said: ‘I think it’s just what I’m drawn to. I think a lot of stories have that; you could probably find them in a lot of stories, so it seems very… in a row. I think the natural nature of revelations or you learn something at the end, is the natural cadence of a mystery. I think that’s more the case, I traffic in mystery thrillers. By that nature of the genre, the characters are discovering things at the end,’ he explained.
Just like moviegoers rally for a Christopher Nolan temporal pincer movement or a Quentin Tarantino motherf*cker-fest, Shyamalan draws out people hungry for a delicious mystery, hanging onto the script’s final breath. Really, he’s one of the few honest-to-god auteurs recognised by your everyday person, at the very least in name.
I was curious to know if he saw this as a cultural responsibility. ‘It’s even more than a responsibility, it’s something I believe in that the mitigation of our voices is this kind-of constant pressure on all of us, whether you’re a child or in high school… constantly what makes you pokey and different, you’re gonna round those things off as a human being to be accepted,’ he said.
‘To have a mainstream artform… whether we know it or not, it’s an incredible gift to us when someone’s okay being different. The thing you’re referencing as auteur, that accent on the movie, that strange weirdness of it, is me. I think the more I’m honest to that, the more audiences are devoted and they keep coming.
‘It’s not a literal equation, but I think when they feel from an artist capitulation or this sense of an agenda-driven decision… for example, somebody can make a movie about a video game, and it can be a complete sell-out decision or an incredibly beautiful, inspired decision. We know that when we watch it based on the love of someone who’s obsessed by it, and they see all this weirdness and beauty, they feel inspired by it.
‘That’s the most important thing, rather than, ‘Hey, I’m trying to get to an agenda of some kind, some monetary agenda.’ This should be, ‘Wow, this person is just inspired by the weirdness of this, and they’re okay creating that balance of the ugly and beautiful, and that ugly and beautiful sitting together feels right.”
Shyamalan acknowledges it may seem ‘long-winded’ to some, but ‘it’s an important thing… being okay with yourself is primary to this conversation. Once upon a time, every movie we went to had that feeling.’
Old hits cinemas on Friday, July 23.
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