M. Night Shyamalan’s work is obsessed with the anguish of grief and cosmic feelings of heartbreak. Whether or not they are explicitly about grieving, a sense of ghostliness hangs over his characters––death is always right around the corner and there’s no way to exist in his spaces without processing it. Shyamalan’s greatest moments have come from exploration of the pain following death, the empty spaces that overwhelm one’s surroundings after losing a loved one, and the sequences where his characters are explicitly forced to reckon with their own mortality.
In The Sixth Sense, grief is a double-edged sword. Olivia Williams’ character is constantly grieving her husband, depending on their wedding video to find any consolation in the world as she exists in isolation. On the other side, Shyamalan shows the heartbreak in Bruce Willis’ eyes as he realizes his own death and what he has to do to move on to the next life, the final goodbyes he’s forced to make to the woman he died beside. In Unbreakable, death doesn’t come for Bruce Willis’ David Dunn; it drifts through him while wiping out everything else. His reconciliation with survival, the feeling of ghostliness that comes from being inches from death is the characterization that defines the film. The embrace of superpowers is his way of processing that he’s alive, that he can cling onto the tangible fabrics of existence again, that he doesn’t need to shut down and hide away to be able to breathe.
This is common through the majority of Shyamalan’s filmography. In Signs, grief and the eventual decision to process are manifested through an alien invasion. In The Village it is framed through one woman’s collapse of reality, experiencing the dissolution of everything she’s ever known while trying to ground herself. In Split, trauma binds the protagonists (James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy), allowing them to understand each other even as bodies and realities convulse and contort. Shyamalan is a sentimental optimist, a deeply empathetic filmmaker who cares about his characters but forces them to reckon with the darkness of life, the heartbreak that death brings, so that the presence of love means even more.
All these elements come into play in Old, his latest film and one of his greatest. Shyamalan takes a concept that could be ridiculous and finds such profound emotion and terror within it, using his trademark humanism to explore the natures of existence. Centered on a separating couple (Vicky Krieps and Gael García Bernal) who take their two children on a final vacation before they announce their split, Old follows the family as they experience a lavish, beautiful resort while dealing with their fractured relationship. Eventually they are guided to a top-secret beach by the hotel manager, alongside another family, a married couple, and a mysterious musician. As their day continues they start to realize they’re unable to leave this beach and that they are all aging rapidly every hour, with most unlikely to survive through the night.
Shyamalan’s consistently impeccable skill with performance is on full display here. Bernal and Krieps are stellar throughout, conveying the weight of years of partnership in their scenes together. One of Old’s most impressive elements is their physical relationship, gravitating towards each other’s bodies more prominently as they age and let go of previous resentments. The supporting cast is all excellent, in particular Rufus Sewell, Aaron Pierre, and Alex Wolff. Sewell is given the hard task of portraying a despicable character, one who mutates into someone utterly monstrous, and having to embed him with an element of sympathy and fragility. It would have been easier and simpler to reduce his character to an abrasive stereotype of mentally ill people, but Sewell and Shyamalan find moments of true sadness between the aggression. Pierre has recently impressed with his haunting gaze in Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad and he is stupendous here. There is a quiet vulnerability and bitterness to his character of Brendan (aka Mid-Sized Sedan) as he reacts to his situation with tragic incredulousness. He is an actor defined by his eyes, the beauty found within them and the sadness they can radiate towards the world. Wolff is given the on-paper-impossible task of discovering grief as a child inside an adult’s body. It would be easy for him to come across as juvenile, cloying, or downright embarrassing. Instead Wolff’s wails of unbearable anguish are horrifying, as he captures the fragility of innocence perfectly. The cast have been criticized by many for their stilted delivery of certain dialogue sequences, but Shyamalan’s direction of performances is centered on his actors’ facial expressions and body language. They do everything physically to convey the unique horror of their situation and the brief moments of emotional truth they’ll find along the way.
Themes of grief and clinging onto love in the hardest times are fundamental to Old. Unlike Shyamalan’s previous works, Old forces its characters to face their own deaths and the losses of loved ones in real time. There is no distance, no room for reflection or contemplation about the role sorrow plays in their lives. They accept, after a lot of struggle, that they’re probably going to witness the most cherished people in their lives die in front of them or die themselves before they get that chance. Grief is shocking, sudden, utterly devastating to the core in Shyamalan’s other works. In Signs, the protagonist’s wife is killed in a sudden car accident, something that could have been avoided a million different ways but, because of circumstances, caused her life to be extinguished in an instant. In The Sixth Sense—perhaps Old’s closest comparison to interrogating the protagonist’s view of death and suffering—the core revelation is framed as shocking, something that knocks all wind from your sails. Old reveals its hand early into proceedings—while the initial wave of horror is startling, the anticipation for grieving is built into the fabric of Old’s DNA. These characters cannot exist on this beach without reconciling with the idea that they’re going to lose everything that’s ever mattered to them. They are forced to say their goodbyes, to reflect on the loved ones they will lose, even as they lie against their shoulder. It almost doesn’t matter if Vicky Krieps and Gael García Bernal’s characters die or not––they are forced to forever accept pain’s place in their lives, as will their children. Escape from this beach doesn’t mean that the scars it caused will fade. It’s interesting to witness the shift from mourning as a shocking, destabilizing force to a tragically accepted element of life across Shyamalan’s career.
Glass, his last film before Old, is masterful in the way it understands the interlocking elements of love and anguish. To love is to hurt, to say goodbye, to cry and beg for more time. Glass acknowledges the fragility of human existence, depicting how three different men are torn apart and killed by oppressive systems designed to exploit them. There isn’t a happy ending in Glass. Despite Shyamalan’s love for his characters, he kills them without giving them their big showdown; they are broken down and abused and die suffering as their loved ones witness their pain. The film’s catharsis comes from those left behind, the only people who can understand the grief each is experiencing. While the oppressive systems collapse and the hope for the future strengthens, nothing takes away from the heartbreak; nothing will bring their people back. All they can do is hold each other’s hands and find strength in the beauty that will follow.
With an ending practically identical to Glass, Old also kills its lead protagonists just before the final scenes, having their children witness their pain as they struggle and die. It also intricately reveals details behind the system, taking mechanical fascination in the organization that has caused these people eternal suffering. Most importantly, Old also shows its destruction, directly correlating a collapse to the love and strength of the family that are still alive. There is still horrible pain as the children reconcile everything that’s been taken from them: their parents, their innocence, over half their lives. Yet they exist together, clinging onto each other even as everything remains terrifying and uncertain. The two films work symbiotically, exploring the same themes in similar ways but finding their own unique paths to define the human consciousness. This comes through predominantly in the most special moment in a film filled with remarkable grace notes: after losing their parents, the children wake up in the location that has defined their trauma, the place that’s stolen everything from them, and instead of struggling and grieving and destroying themselves, they cling onto what they’ve got left and choose to build a sandcastle. They know it will take years away from their lives, precious seconds that they’ll never be able to get back, but it doesn’t matter. For a few moments they embrace the beautiful joys of existence as the sun shines down upon them.
Every work of Shyamalan’s career develops his ideas on grief further, building on the films that came before. Old is the most explicit link between reconciling with the past and embracing the future he’s ever made, in terms of its literal narrative progression and what it represents in his career. There are elements of everything he’s ever made but also something completely different here—textural, thematic, formal choices that stand out for boldness and idiosyncrasy. If it’s easy to criticize Shyamalan for his storytelling conveniences and dialogue choices, they ignore the heart of what makes this work special. He cares about what truly matters: the elegance and horrors of the camera, the emotions of the characters, and providing a glimpse of catharsis in impossible times. There is no one making films like him right now. It’s hard to imagine anyone else ever will.