Some wounds don’t heal. Not with time. Not with a mythical lake of water with the power to mend all ailments. And while we can try to forget, the mind will always keep a little bit of the truth in reach to ensure the cause of the pain is never far away. It therefore makes sense that we would ultimately meet and leave Stephen Lang’s character at the center of Old Man asleep on his bed with thumb in mouth like a child. The position alludes to the calm of innocence and the desire to find comfort from fear. It means he wakes in a state of disoriented ignorance before taking to slumber amidst grief and guilt’s unavoidable confusion. As for what’s in-between: that’s the journey put on-screen.
Written by Joel Veach and directed by Lucky McKee, this particular day appears to bring Lang’s aging hermit something new in the form of a visitor. His abrupt jolt up in bed hears his raspy voice calling for his dog Rascal only to receive no reply. What ensues are the ravings of a lunatic with Lang simultaneously talking to himself and no one about what he’s going to do when the animal returns. Maybe his threats of killing it, skinning it, and eating it are idle. Maybe they aren’t. His crazed look makes it so both options are feasible and his reaction upon hearing a knock at the door has us leaning towards the former since he opens it with shotgun raised and a refusal to lower it.
The person on the other end of the barrel is Joe (Marc Senter). Uncertain of his surroundings and devoid of the provisions to survive the Smoky Mountains much longer, he saw the smoke from Lang’s chimney and assumed he’d finally caught a break. Having his life threatened would suggest otherwise, but maybe the old man won’t prove quite as homicidal as initially assumed. He didn’t shoot first, after all. Maybe being cooped up alone for God knows how long simply made him a bit paranoid. So, Lang asks questions. Did my wife send you? How did you find this place? He dials up the machismo until Joe is ready to pee his own pants out of fear. Only when the stranger runs for the door do tensions diffuse.
Why? Because it shows Joe isn’t a danger. Lang can’t help but assume the worst and take precautions against them so as not to be robbed or killed. And if Joe took his first opportunity to head for the door rather than attack, maybe there won’t be anything to worry about. A pact is cemented as a result. Lang will promise not to hurt Joe if he promises the same. It’s about to rain and grow dark anyway, so running out into the wilderness won’t be safe. Joe can stay the night, Lang can point him in the right direction come morning, and they can part ways. And, in the meantime, Joe can provide some much-needed company over bad coffee. Who knows? Maybe they’ll teach each other something.
It’s a simple conceit. Old and young coming together inside a decrepit cabin in the woods to discuss their failings and worry about whether one or both is lying about not wanting to hurt the other. As the conversation continues, however, truth can’t help but muddy the water. Lang speaks about what he did many years ago to a Bible salesman (Patch Darragh) who came calling. Joe talks about trouble with his marriage. We can’t help but wonder what it is they aren’t saying out loud when proximity to bearing their souls leaves them staring off into the distance to recall glimpses of what initially brought them to this isolated place. And it only gets weirder once their memories of a moan leading them to its door overlap.
The (un)reality of what’s happening beneath the surface is hardly unique or secretive, but the way Veach writes its revelations and McKee films its visual labyrinth spanning past, present, and purgatory ensure the drama unfolding is never without intrigue. Lang is having fun when he lets his sinister desire to strike fear in his visitor take hold, but he’s never far from emotional devastation once dialogue and actions trigger a long-dormant memory his mind has tricked himself into believing didn’t happen. Senter’s performance is much more calculatingly fabricated (intentionally so). It’s not a surprise that Lang’s character would ask if his Joe was a salesman since that level of artifice and manipulation seems ever-present until an admission about being mired in self-loathing brings a glimpse of authenticity.
There’s some interesting camera work to keep the whole from getting too stale, circling the cabin to orient ourselves with its surroundings while Lang walks and/or stumbles to both intimidate his quasi-prisoner and expose his creeping senility. Even so, I conversely thought Old Man best in the static moments pitting these actors together in a way that allows them to find even-footing for vulnerability. It’s here that truths are found and clues uncovered. It’s here that sounds are heard to pointedly direct the frame towards a cougar’s head or closed trunk or coffee pot that may or may not have been poisoned. Those objects are where the truth lies and how an effectively surreal climax bears fruit to expose a broken mind without hope for repair.
Old Man hits limited release, VOD, and Digital HD on October 14.