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From ‘Old’ to ‘The Green Knight,’ the Summer’s Most Daring Movies Tackle Our Universal Fear of Death

In another unconventional summer movie season, these films are bringing an unconventional amount of substance to the table.

How Old, The Green Knight, and Nine Days Tackle America's Anxieties

“The Green Knight”

A24

There’s a moment in “Old” that transcends every prominent and defensible critique. Long after the small ensemble of vacationers come to terms with their entrapment, that some unseen force has trapped them on a beach and caused them to age around one year every 30 minutes, an estranged young couple grow old. Hours earlier, they were on the verge of divorce; now, they have been turned elderly and forgotten what they were fighting about in the first place. They have the vaguest impression of shared anger in their distant past, which has receded enough to feel irrelevant to their present condition. Their bodies have grown weak and they can feel the life seeping out of their veins. And they smile, recognizing the fragility of their time together as the night settles in.

This unexpected poignance is a powerful moment in the midst of the schlocky horror movie surrounding it. Yes, “Old” is far from top-shelf Shyamalan: Marred by hokey dialogue, stock characters galore, and an implausible finale that’s less twist than thud, the movie suffers from its uncompromising writer-director’s worst instincts. However, while Shyamalan would do well to hire a writer to clarify his many inspired ideas and ground them in plausible behavior, he remains one of the few American directors capable of rooting genuine dread in the most unusual of circumstances. In a few touching closeups, “Old” is a movie about one of America’s biggest anxieties — the inevitability of death and the destruction of the planet — assembling them under the guise of slick, immersive entertainment. And it’s not the only one.

David Lowery’s upcoming fantasy epic “The Green Knight” is the ideal “Old” companion piece, and a rich expansion of its most potent themes. The director’s beguiling adaptation of the 14th century chivalric romance stars Dev Patel as the enterprising Sir Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, who agrees to do battle with the verdant, mystical tree-like figure summoned into the court one night, only to trade his own life for it.

The Green Knight allows Sir Gawain to strike him down so long as the young man agrees to let the creature attack him in the exact same way one year later. It’s a bizarre gamble, but one that the cocksure character embraces without question, only to spend the rest of the movie dreading the decision and realizing he’s signed his own death warrant. The gradual sense of terror on his face becomes a central narrative device about the irony of youth. Kids these days — and those days — have such convictions about their invincibility that they’re blindsided by the inevitability of their own demise. The final exchange that caps off “The Green Knight,” like “Old,” finds two characters enveloped in a bittersweet moment that undercuts the morbidity of their situation.

In both cases, death begins as an object of terror and winds up taking on a kind of haunting beauty within the grander context of the universe’s intricate design. “Old” and “Green Knight” express a stunning Emersonian worldview, as the overwhelming grandeur of nature becomes an all-consuming force. This is a provocative theme that obviously has timely resonance in the pandemic, even though both movies were conceived well in advance of it.

OLD, from left: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alex Wolff, 2021. © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Old”

©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

That’s because these ideas held weight well in advance of the current global crisis. On top of their existential anxiety, they’re blatant environmentalist pleas to acknowledge the frailty of nature before it consumes us. There’s a scene in “Old” in which a once-youthful woman breaks virtually every bone in her body as she twists around in a claustrophobic cave, until she’s reduced to a knotty mess; it’s an inherently ridiculous display, but very on-brand for Shyamalan, who tends to veer towards shocking overstatement when it comes to nature’s inherent vindictiveness. (Consider the expressionless plants in “The Happening,” as they destroy humanity without moving a muscle, at the center of a ridiculous movie that makes a very good point.) Likewise, in “The Green Knight,” Sir Gawain makes his way through an intimidating forest where the trees foil his ability to see in every direction, and one of their own kind promises to seal his fate. He’s surrounded by a world more complex and resilient than his own desire for survival.

These movies deliver flawed but audacious visions of humanity as a very small piece of the larger evolutionary puzzle, one complicated by forces virtually impossible to tame. And they dovetail nicely into another peculiar and provocative summer release, Edson Oda’s “Nine Days.” Oda’s movie revolves around ethereal beings jockeying for the exclusive chance to score life on Earth. Through a series of trials assessing the behavior of other living people, they must prove they deserve a shot. The oddball premise splits the difference between “Defending Your Life” and last year’s “Soul,” not always maintaining a successful balance. But the movie hits a stirring note whenever its main arbiter (Winston Duke) and his assistant (Benedict Wong) reject certain souls and send them off by constructing a makeshift memory to leave them happy as they fade from existence. It’s a haunting device, but not entirely bleak, either — an acknowledgement that pure joy can exist even under the most dire of circumstances.

“Nine Days”

Michael Coles/Mandalay Pictures

That’s a radical perspective that, as with “The Green Knight” and “Old,” touches on the ineffable pressure to meet tragedy with a positive attitude and an eye toward the bigger picture. There is plenty of doom and gloom in these movies, but never at the expense of stunning visuals that fill the frame and shimmer with an air of curiosity about this strange, delicate planet, and our small place within it. They’re all deeply purposeful works designed to meet their moments. In another unconventional summer movie season, these summer movies bring an unusual amount of substance to the table. Their stories take more than a few ridiculous turns, but many of them are scary, funny, or touching in their own unique ways. In a world burdened with unpredictability, this may not be the type of entertainment we’re clamoring for, but it’s almost certainly the wakeup call we deserve.

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