Old Man opens with a large painted image, as if from an illustrated children’s book. After showing a shadowy figure walking a forest path, the camera slowly tilts to take in, further up the mountain, a cottage with a smoking chimney. That cottage will turn out to be the film’s key location, its lived-in interior walls proving the claustrophobic arena for everything, save one primal scene, that unfolds in the film. This is an actual place on the map, located way off the beaten track in a part of the Smoky Mountains, somewhere in the vicinity of Little River, near Elkmont, Tennessee, where one of the characters used to go fly-fishing as a child with his grandfather. Yet as that painted representation at the beginning suggests, this is also a mythic space, the archetypal ‘cabin in the woods’ that so frequently features in dark fairytales – and of course in horror films. This latest feature from director Lucky McKee is similarly perched in a grey zone between the real, the psychological and the imaginary.
In that cottage lives the Old Man (Stephen Lang), all alone but for his not altogether faithful and conspicuously absent animal companion Rascal, and as the Old Man wakes in bed – and in a striking red onesie – bleary-eyed and gasping, and gets up threatening all manner of cruel punishments against his missing dog, there is an unexpected knock at the door. The old man’s visitor is Joe (Marc Senter), a politely spoken, much younger man who has got turned around while walking in the woods, and who seems unable to remember quite how he came to be there in the first place. “How do I know you’re not some goddam psychokiller?”, the Old Man will ask, at first holding his surprise guest at gunpoint and insisting on interrogating him. So the Old Man himself seems both barely sane and highly dangerous. while viewers who have seen Senter’s memorable performance as a cold-blooded killer in Chris Sivertson’s The Lost (2006) may share the Old Man’s paranoia about this stranger in his midst – but Lang himself of course starred as the murderous homeowner in Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe (2016). Going by their filmographies, either one of these actors might be playing psychokiller.
As these two men’s mutual distrust gradually evaporates, they will exchange stories containing gaps and holes, with carefully constructed lies and locked-in truths. Their discourse will cover fragile marriages, suspicions directed at both the clergy and door-to-door salesmen, scepticism about the very notion of a benign, interventionist God (himself characterised as “some old man sitting there, somewhere in the clouds”), confessions about “death and beauty” and the black dog of depression, and deep longings for a miraculous cure from accumulated pain, guilt and trauma – a cure that perhaps exists only in the mind, or in storybook legend. These tales told about and by men assume an increasingly existential edge, and with their conversation becoming ever more inward-looking, even solipsistic, there is something about the focus on lost boys (young and old), the almost theatrical indoor set-up and the encroaching despair, that evokes Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room (2020).
In one “funny story” that the Old Man tells Joe about a previous unannounced visit to the cabin from a Bible salesman (Patch Darragh), the Old Man is shown repeating lines as though he were still directly addressing the salesman in the present, while his younger self (shown in flashback) irrationally continues the narration of the very story in which he now appears as a character. This disorienting confusion of present and past selves from different timelines reflects a broader narrative strategy in a film where everyone is a fugitive from a history whose burden they still carry with them on their back. Meanwhile, as the stormy evening advances and the Old Man and Joe hit the hooch jars together, the only woman in the film, Joe’s wife Genie (Liana Wright-Mark), keeps coming out of the bottle, even if she is no less absent from the cabin than Rascal.
Old Man is as slippery as the mercurial character of the title, whose every volatile mood swing – from cantankerous to tender, from menacing to addled – is perfectly modulated by Lang in a protean performance of a man as unwilling to face himself as to be deconstructed by others. Senter is the perfect foil: hesitant where the Old Man is assertive, and courteous where the Old Man is gruff, and yet having much more in common with his host than is at first apparent. Joel Veach’s screenplay slyly rings the changes on these evasive characters, while McKee deftly pulls off the contradictory tasks of keeping the events in the cabin both anchored and unhinged (and always making its cluttered interiors as interesting as possible with canted angles and closeted perspectives). “You ain’t out of the woods – yet,” the Old Man will say, as he insists on holding onto the knife which he finds hidden in Joe’s backpack. In a way, neither is, as these two men from different generations are still very much circling each other in a locked groove – and in a recurring metaphor for their own haunted self-deception.
strap: In Lucky McKee’s claustrophobic psychodrama, two men must cohabit in a cabin in the woods – and in their own poisonous masculinity
© Anton Bitel