In the opening pages of “Dino,” a 1992 biography of Dean Martin by Nick Tosches, the author cites a haunting Italian phrase: “La vecchiaia è carogna.” “Old age is carrion.”
When some vacationing families are deposited on a secluded beach recommended to them by a smarmy resort manager in “Old,” the new movie written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, we see a trio of vultures atop a tree take to the sky.
Not long after that, unusual things begin happening. The young children of Guy and Prisca (Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps, both superb, as is the entire cast) feel their bathing suits tightening. An epileptic psychologist (Nikki Amuka-Bird) unexpectedly finds herself without symptoms. The elderly mother of the trophy wife of a tetchy physician just up and dies. A moderately famous rap star (Aaron Pierre), who had come to the beach some hours before, wanders around befuddled, with an incurable nosebleed. The corpse of his female companion is discovered in the water, prompting the physician (Rufus Sewell) to accuse the rapper of murder.
In time — not too much time, because, as it happens, it is of the essence in this situation — the beachgoers figure out that they are aging at an accelerated rate. One half-hour equals about a year.
And the beach that is aging them won’t let them leave.
Some vacation. Shyamalan adapted his disquieting tale from the graphic novel “Sandcastle,” by the French writer Pierre Oscar Lévy and the Swiss illustrator Frederik Peeters. As is frequently the case with French-produced bandes dessinées, “Sandcastle” is a stark existentialist parable. (It is perhaps no coincidence that the book Krieps’s character attempts to read on the beach is a dual biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.) Shyamalan expands on the book in the way one would expect an American filmmaker to — among other things, eventually offering a sort-of explanation that the source material doesn’t.
Being PG-13, “Old” does not dwell, as the graphic novel does, on how rapid aging affects the children of this ensemble in the hormonal department once they hit their teens, although one pregnancy does occur during the victims’ shared life-in-a-day. Instead, the movie buckles down on the considerable anxiety and dread felt, and amplified, by the frequently bickering adults. Because time is accelerated here, wounds heal incredibly quickly. The director exploits this for a couple of weirdly harrowing knife fights and an impromptu surgery scene. The horrific potential of bones breaking, then instantly resetting themselves incorrectly, does not go unnoticed.
Shyamalan’s fluid filmmaking style, outstanding features of which are an almost ever-mobile camera and a bag of focus tricks, serves him especially well here. Sometimes the camera will pan back and forth in a ticktock pendulum fashion (get it?) and return to its starting point to reveal a terrifying change. The way he switches out his actors as their characters age is seamless. (The filmmaker’s work in the verbal department is not so felicitous. He names Pierre’s rap star “Mid-Sized Sedan”; early on one character complains to another, “You’re always thinking about the future, and it makes me feel not seen.”)
If old age is carrion, it’s also, as a “Citizen Kane” character put it, the one disease you don’t look forward to curing, which provides the impetus for the movie’s finale. While Shyamalan is often cited for his tricky endings, it’s arguable that he doesn’t quite stick the landing with this one. He adds to the story a dollop of that much-venerated Hollywood commodity, hope, and also doles out some anti-science propaganda that couldn’t be more unwelcome at this particular time in the real world.
Rated PG-13 for horrific imagery, language and aging. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. In theaters.