M. Night Shyamalan has had a wildly uneven career. He's made great films like The Sixth Sense, massive bombs like The Last Airbender, and mediocrities like The Visit. You really never know which of those things you'll get when you walk into one of his pictures. His newest work, Old, isn't peak Shyamalan, but it's the first movie he's made in more than a decade that I can honestly say I liked. The director has big ideas on his mind this time, and that clearly energizes him.

It's impossible to say much about the story without venturing into spoiler territory. The gist is that a family of four goes to a luxury vacation resort. Ostensibly it's for fun, but parents Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Kreips) want to give their young children Trent (Nolan River) and Maddox (Alexa Swinton) one last trip before announcing their separation. The resort manager arranges for them to visit a secret hidden beach, one that he only recommends to special guests. The family goes, along with a doctor, Charles (Rufus Sewell), and his narcissistic trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee). A couple people are already there and two more show up not long after.

This is no ordinary beach. Inexplicably, Trent and Maddox go from being children to being teenagers. (They're now played by Hereditary's Alex Wolff and Jojo Rabbit's Thomasin McKenzie.) Everyone else shows abrupt signs of rapid aging, too. With no apparent way off the beach – for reasons best left unrevealed -- the group must try to figure out what's going on.

Fear of one’s own mortality is the central theme in Old. Adapting the graphic novel Sandcastle, Shyamalan cleverly finds new wrinkles to add to the premise. The characters have to face the fact that their time is slipping away -- a process each of them deals with in their own way. Most compelling of all is the journey of Trent, who is hurtled into puberty with chilling results. You'd think a movie set entirely on a small section of beach would grow monotonous. By giving everybody their own personal dilemma, the story is able to weave back and forth, ensuring that unexpected developments come on a regular basis.

Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis take a very unusual approach. Using lens choices and off-kilter frame composition, they create a sense of claustrophobia in a wide-open location. The camera is often purposefully too close to the actors, cutting off the tops of their heads or half of their bodies. In group shots the actors are arranged in such a way that their proximity to each other feels unnatural. That infuses the film with an almost subliminal vibe of dread, emphasizing the sinister nature of the beach.

Of course, with such a high-concept premise, having strong performances is crucial. Old has them. The stars meaningfully convey the terror/panic/confusion that arises from their predicament. Wolff and McKenzie are the standouts, as their characters have the greatest amount of growth in the movie. He shows how rushing through childhood takes an emotional toll on Trent, while she brings alive the idea that Maddox is intellectually capable of seeing the big picture for her family, namely that their parents' separation is the least likely tragedy to befall the clan at this point.

Old does have its stumbling blocks. Dialogue is occasionally clunky. For example, to introduce the characters to us, Shyamalan has 6-year-old Trent walk around literally asking people, "What's your name and what do you do for a living?" Two or three moments designed to play as disturbing come off silly instead, most notably the way Charles keeps going off on a tangent about a movie he once saw whenever he becomes too stressed.

Such flaws limit Old to a degree. The good qualities keep it afloat, and that includes the ending. Shyamalan has developed a reputation as the king of unexpected third-act plot twists. His efforts to pull the rug out from under the audience has been woefully misguided at times. (It badly marred Split for me.) Old wisely doesn't have a twist. Instead, it has an explanation for what's happening at the beach. That explanation is satisfying, as it adheres to the logic of the story, while also presenting a provocative set of ideas of its own. Sticking the landing is key in a mysterious tale like this, and doing so makes the movie a chiller that evokes big thoughts along with the requisite shivers.

out of four

Old is rated PG-13 for strong violence, disturbing images, suggestive content, partial nudity and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.