New Pollution #8: Manoj: The Sands of Fate
M. Night is a pioneer in one way, as memory serves. May be apocryphal, but I recall an interview — in the wake of The Sixth Sense, during the lead-up to Unbreakable — in which he discussed the importance, with audience and critical attention then at a feverish peak, of defining the Shyamalan “brand.” (The dread “b”-word. Bury it six meters down beside that appalling “f”-word, “franchise,” if you would.) He saw himself as a commodity early on, and he still does. In a pre-taped introduction attached to his latest feature, Old, Shyamalan welcomes pandemic-scarred viewers back to theaters before referring to his 1999 supernatural blockbuster as his first film, conspicuously (for those of us in the know) sweeping his 1992 semi-autobiographical debut, Praying with Anger, and his 1998 search-for-God dramedy, Wide Awake (heavily compromised by Harvey Weinstein), under the rug.
Shyamalan is a calculating sort, but why shouldn’t he be? Particularly since the “b”-word has so fully entrenched itself in the modern mo-pic lexicon. I shriveled inside when Lulu Wang, writer-director of the lovely 2019 family drama The Farewell, talked in a roundtable about her own need to define her “brand” on account of that film’s success. But there was an edge in how she said it, as if she was well aware that working within a supremacist system that has historically favored the white, the male, and the shamelessly monetized requires a warping of principles. It’s either one thing (play by the rules, with their feathery feints at progress) or the other (go home and seethe in obscurity). I like to think there are gradations in-between. But oppression tends to sully even the sharpest among us, until we weigh heavy on ourselves. What’s done to us, we perpetuate. Exploding that and living truly, adaptively free is a tall order.
Shyamalan has admirably adjusted to the ebb and flow of his career — self-financing when the money wasn’t there, sticking to a fairly rigorous creative schedule (I recall another long-ago interview in which he discussed the importance of setting hard two-week deadlines for his various screenplay drafts), even finding time to tell “The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap.” Doesn’t feel like he’s developed much overall, though. And isn’t that one of the prices of “branding”? You box yourself in, and the work goes flat — a shell without a spirit, even if, in Shyamalan’s case, there tend to be flickers of soul, and sometimes more, in each of his movies.
Old fits the Shyamalan brand in that its moronic qualities are entangled with its moving ones. As usual, the former outweigh the latter. Though at its very occasional best, Old leans hard into both its sincerely emotive and garishly exploitative aspects, which doesn’t start happening (hey!) until the killer tropical coastline’s dirty secret (it ages you at the rate of a year every thirty minutes) becomes apparent to the gaggle of doomed vacationers at story’s center. Before then, it’s all half-baked signs and portents, with a push-in on a resort hotel’s pharmaceutical company sponsorship plaque (you can practically hear The Next Spielberg shouting, “this means something, people!”) illustrative of Shyamalan’s ineptitude when it comes to the actual “magic” of movies. He’s roundly terrible at hiding the obvious, unable to conceal a narrative tell in plain sight in the elegant way, for example, that De Palma choreographed the jeweled-brassiere switcheroo in Femme Fatale.
Shyamalan shows his hand early and often, and not just in the stilted expository dialogue that makes his characters — here, a multi-culti/-disciplinary cross section of humanity, since we're once more in the collective trauma allegory mode of The Village and Lady in the Water — sound like the body-snatched. For some, this plays as a technique consciously utilized to foster unease. For me, it’s further evidence of the myopic mentality that undoes a number of Shyamalan features. He has his low bar (creatively, philosophically) and he sticks to it, what little movement there is, especially big-picture-wise, dictated solely and shallowly by the current zeitgeist and its attendant horrors.
In macro, Old explores pandemic-era anxieties about the corporate entities that hold life-or-death sway over society. A ripe topic, sketchily explored in this context. Though I’ve read a few pointed postulations that the film ultimately takes misogynist and pro-police/anti-vax stances, which I think gives Shyamalan’s frivolous ethos way too much credit, while simultaneously illuminating the regressive attributes of his art, his oft-infamous twist endings (explaining away things that would better remain in the dread-inducing void) just the tip of that particular iceberg, and fodder for more interested parties than myself to explore.
It’s on the micro level that I found myself moved by Old, inadvertently at first, as when Kathleen Chalfant was mercifully dispatched early on, and thus spared the grotesqueries that were Betty Buckley’s crosses to bear in The Happening and Split. But then the film got into a nice, tense groove, with the performers game for everything from accelerated tumor surgery to dementia-inflected cinephile trivia. (Answer: The Missouri Breaks.) It’s always a delight when Rufus Sewell plays a prick, and his rusty-knife comeuppance is one of Shyamalan’s most memorable kills, only outdone by the fate that befalls Abbey Lee’s trophy wife, Chrystal, whose rapidly decaying body is transformed, through circumstances too deliriously absurd to describe, into a kind of fleshy swastika. (Was it me who said Shyamalan didn’t have a flair for the politically acute? I recant!)
Then there are leads Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps, playing unhappily-marrieds Guy and Prisca, who begin the movie as servants (hey, hey!) to their director’s innumerable bad ideas and finish it with a scene so profoundly poignant — certainly the equal of Robin Wright’s doorway conversation with Bruce Willis in Unbreakable — that Shyamalan’s own descriptor (“Bergman blockbuster”) feels apt instead of arrogant. Krieps is also the focus of Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’s best recurring visual, a series of off-kilter compositions that puzzlingly (at first) emphasize her ear, yet pay off down the line with an extremely bittersweet audio cue (or the lack of one). I also adored the sequence on which a better filmmaker would have concluded, as Guy and Prisca’s speedily aged children, Trent and Maddox, accept their hours-left-to-live fate and, instead of succumbing to fear and loathing, build a sandcastle to pass the time. The Shyamalan brand returns soon after, with a slap-to-the-cerebrum silly finale. But by that point I was riding the lyrical high of Thomasin McKenzie maturing into Embeth Davidtz too much to care.