Synopsis: When a lost hiker stumbles upon an erratic older man living in the woods, he could never have imagined the nightmare that awaits.
Stars: Stephen Lang, Marc Senter, Liana Wright-Mark, Patch Darragh
Director: Lucky McKee
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: There was a time when my hometown was known for its thriving arts community and for having the most theater seats outside of NYC. With the recession, a pandemic, and a long-time coming cultural reckoning, the past decade has seen a shift in attention to the performing arts. With it, many of the theaters and theater companies have dwindled. While I understand and support the need for change to bring about equity and inclusion for all, I mourn the loss of the smaller theaters that produced tiny shows where you were often lucky enough to snag a seat. Now, you usually have to travel to other metropolitan locations like Chicago if you want that type of experience. Even there, it’s tough to find.
I mention that at the top of my review for director Lucky McKee’s Old Man because it’s essentially a two-person play filmed as a movie. Oh, it’s fully a movie with the expected production design and composition necessary to make dialogue and performances come to life for home viewing. Still, I’d be intrigued if writer Joel Veach originally intended his script for the stage instead of the screen. Either way, it has a plum role for an older character actor with a sneaky arc that provides fantastic opportunities to show off without going overboard. Find the right actor to complement, but not overshadow, the lead, and you’ve solved half your battle.
The good news is that Old Man is a more engaging and entertaining piece than it starts as. I was nervous I wasn’t going to be able to get through it at all because the opening ten minutes had the kind of hokey, sub-level acting you’d expect to see onstage in an amateur production but not a feature film. Set in the middle of the woods in freezing temperatures, it turns out everyone only needs a little time to warm up because once actor Stephen Lang (Don’t Breathe) settles in (and settles down), things start to take shape.
Waking up alone and confused in a lonely cabin looking for his companion Rascal, the Old Man (Lang) bumbles his way around the compact area, talking to himself with reassurances his friend will return, and all will be well. He doesn’t see the small amounts of blood on his head and hands at first, and if he does, he shrugs them off quickly. He’s distracted anyway by an unexpected knock at the door. When he opens it, he finds mild-mannered Joe (Marc Senter, Starry Eyes), who speaks in a soft ‘indoor voice’ and tells the Old Man he has gotten turned around in the large forest and can’t find his way back out.
Suspicious of the newcomer (his first guest in a long while, we gather), the Old Man lets Joe come in, but before he allows him to call for assistance, he grills him on why he was in the forest in the first place. Through these direct conversations, we discover that Joe may be hiding facts about his day from the Old Man, just as the Old Man withholds crucial information from Joe. Are they both sizing each other up as prey, keeping their secrets until the bitter end? Or will truths come to light faster than either intended, requiring a battle of wills in a slinky game of cat and mouse where neither is aware of what role the other is playing?
McKee is a director that’s had an interesting career path after gaining a cult following with his 2002 sophomore feature, May. Following that up with the spooky mystery The Woods in 2006, he’s been a bit all over the map in the years following, directing for TV and the occasional film. None have been as big of a calling card as May, and with good reason, not one of them had that same hunger and was fueled by indie spirit creativity. He gets some back with Old Man, but it takes a while. Once you figure out what’s happening in Veach’s script (and it doesn’t take long), you wonder how McKee will assemble the puzzle. It’s not exactly as you would think…which makes the watch much more enjoyable.
Senter supports his lead, giving a Crispin Glover-esque performance of carefully chosen words and deliberate movements. It’s all in service to the rug pull McKee/Veach have waiting in the wings, and thankfully neither Senter nor Lang tip their hat to a late-in-the-game reveal that starts to hang heavy over them. Thankfully, Lang is capable of shouldering some extra weight and carrying much of the film. Despite those rough first few scenes, he’s spot-on for the remainder, especially a pivotal final act. By chance, I caught Lang’s performance in Avatar several days later and was impressed by how much Lang (always a fine performer) has evolved as an actor over the past years. If possible, there’s even more of the grizzled grunt to him here.
A decision on Old Man ultimately comes down to a few things. Are you in the mood for a talky piece that might not meet the bar as the thriller it markets itself as but remains an interesting acting exercise for its two leads, or do you require more bang for your buck? I think there is a time and place for Old Man, but you have to be in the right mood and forgiving enough to stick out that opening stretch with my assurances there’s more to it than meets the eye. Speaking of which, a word to the wise. Keep your eyes open throughout the film on the background. I won’t say more than that, but McKee positions his camera and framing of the actors for a specific reason.