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American writer-director Lucky McKee, best known for his indie horror classics May and The Woman, utilizes the conventions of chamber thriller and psychological horror for his new feature film Old Man (2022). The claustrophobic two-hander, written by Joel Veach, tells the story of a lost hiker who stumbles upon the cabin of an erratic and reclusive old man. What commences as a cordial conversation soon becomes dangerous as it becomes clear that one or both of them might be hiding a terrifying secret. This character-driven dialogue-heavy film uses the tropes of ‘two men locked inside a cabin’ and ‘cat-and-mouse game’ to move the story forward.
The film unleashes a very unhinged Stephen Lang, who plays the titular mood-swinging, storytelling old man who may remind you of his menacing character as the “Blind Man” in Don’t Breathe (2016). Still, this sinister thriller deals with cycles of violence, guilt, and regret and the way memories can haunt us for a lifetime. McKee’s best films are centered around outcasts and eccentric characters, and Old Man continues with that tendency in which he shows ample empathy for them. This mysterious and puzzling story is so elongated and stretched that it becomes tedious and monotonous until it reaches its almost predictable revelation in the climax, when the movie unfolds to release the sense of dread and isolation.
Shot in fifteen days with a minimal crew, limited resources, and a simple setup, this is a noble attempt at a true indie film. This write-up provides an overall understanding of the film as it ventures into explaining the minute and intricate details. Refrain from reading the article if you haven’t watched the movie, as the article may contain major spoilers.
OLD MAN SYNOPSIS & SUMMARY
EXPOSITION – THE RECLUSIVE OLD MAN
Old Man begins with a title sequence accompanied by dramatic and somber music playing in the background that establishes the setting and tone of the film. In the background of the titles, the camera zooms into the landscape painting of an isolated log cabin tucked far away in the woods with a smoking chimney and lighted windows. The scene shifts to a single-room cabin that comprises the entirety of the film’s setting and focuses on an unnamed old man (Stephen Lang) lying in bed wearing red overalls. He is jolted awake agape, presumably from a nightmare, and the camera lingers in extreme close-up to capture his disoriented and perplexed state.
He gets out of bed and frantically scrambles about while the camera tracks him across the length of the single room. It is transparent that something isn’t quite right about the reclusive old man when he says nobody leaves him. He begins fussing around the cabin, muttering to himself, and searches for his dog Rascal, whom he calls “disloyal” and ungrateful, which must have run off in the night. He goes on grumbling about the dastardly dog that has pissed on his floor and left him alone yet again. He cleans up the piss and issues a threat to the dog while occasionally stopping to take swigs of moonshine. He is wildly irresolute and erratic as he laments the pet’s absence in one instance and then suddenly threatens to kill it by throwing the dog over the fireplace or stuffing and sticking its head on the wall as soon as he lays hands on it.
WHO TURNS UP AT THE OLD MAN’S CABIN OUT OF THE BLUE?
A hapless hiker named Joe (Marc Senter), who had gotten himself lost in the woods, picked the wrong place to ask for help. All of a sudden, he hears a knock at the door, and it pulls him out of his angry ruminations. He grabs his shotgun, jolts out of his stupor, and approaches the door. The deranged old man threatens Joe with the gun and pins him against the window while demanding to know where his dog is, who he is, why he’s here, and if his wife had sent him. The raining series of questions leaves Joe understandably confused and terror-stricken, and he tries his best to calm the old man by assuring him that he is lost and has no ulterior motive.
The old man reluctantly invites Joe inside the cabin with the barrel of a shotgun, showing his overly suspicious and distrustful nature about the unexpected visitor. Joe tries to get into the old man’s good books by appreciating his taxidermy and what he has done with his well-kept cabin. The stuffed animals may be an allusion to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), in which he utilized stuffed birds to artfully foreshadow events and reveal deeper truths about characters. Their interactions are tense at first as the old man is not convinced about the mild-mannered stranger’s stumble into the cabin out of the blue. He reveals that it is not a holiday inn, and he is paranoid and extra cautious regarding strangers. The old man set up some rules for Joe to sit where he is seated and only respond to him when he asks a question unless he wants to end up as one of the stuffed animals.
On questioning, a tense Joe tells the hard isolated old man that he came alone and he wouldn’t believe him if he told him why he went into the woods. The old man counters by saying that the cabin is built way off the beaten path so that he wouldn’t be bothered and asks how he found the cabin. When Joe mentions that he lost his way and saw the smoke from the chimney, the old man retorts and says, “I ain’t too convinced that what you’re saying ain’t a heaping pile of shit?” He goes further to ask, “How do I know you’re not some kinda goddamned psycho killer? How do I know you’re not some maniac madman on the loose?” Joe is flustered but manages to keep up with his accusations of ordinary-looking people like him, harmless on the inside but crazy inside, turning evil and cannibalistic. Joe swears that he is not and that he is not going to kill or eat him. The reason he gives is, “It’s against the law.”
WHY DID JOE TRY TO RUN OFF THE CABIN?
Getting agitated out of not getting any clue about Joe, the old man asks him whether he is a salesman and then moves to search his bag. He finds toiletries, a first-aid kid, some trail mix, and a knife. Joe assures that he was carrying it for protection before coming out to the woods. The younger fellow tells the old man that he used to visit these woods when he was a child whenever his grandfather took him to fly-fish the Little River. And he relays how his grandfather taught him to be precautious as the woods can be beautiful as well as dangerous. When Joe asks for the knife back, the old man holds on to it and remarks, “You ain’t out of the woods yet.”
Felling scared and afraid for his life, Joe tries to run off from the cabin, but the old loner shoots, putting a hole in the floor near where Joe is standing. Joe confesses that he might be better off on his way and wants to leave as he believes the old man to be “a little crazy.” The loner agrees that they will not hurt each other, offering the olive branch. A visibly shaken Joe is so alarmed that he feels like he will piss himself. The old man shows him the pissoir and muses, “That’s the trouble with you young people these days. You got no fight in you, no taste for violence. Your blood doesn’t boil lie those who come before.” He talks about his generation, who was brought up like ancient Greek warriors who had no room for weakness, and mocks Joe for being meek and cowardly.
WHAT DID THE OLD MAN REVEAL ABOUT HIS PAST?
It is now revealed that they are somewhere in the Great Smoky Mountains along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, “about 180,000-plus acres of rocks and trees and dark danger.” Joe is not disclosing how he got there and said it is “a little fussy” and vague in his memory. The old man asks Joe to stay put and be warm and head out first thing in the morning as there is going to be a storm soon. When asked whether he knew the woods, the old man laughingly says that nobody knew it better than him except for his dog Rascal. They spit-shake and agree to be civil to each other. He also discloses his blatant desire for company, somebody new to talk to for a change.
Now, the old man is a welcoming host offering him coffee. He talks about salesmen and how he distrusts the lot who have forking tongues and only care about making their monthly. The old man reveals that he had the unfortunate experience of dabbling in sales when he was younger. He quit the job because he was tired of deceiving people and himself. For him, it was a burden, a waking nightmare going door to door selling things just to satisfy his wife with some new appliance. He becomes upset when asked about his wife and, as if to distract himself, starts to tell what is supposed to be a funny story.
WHAT DID THE OLD MAN DO TO THE BIBLE SALESMAN?
The story is about a Bible salesman (Patch Darragh) who came all the way to Smoky Mountain to sell the Good Book. The old man disgustingly talks about his fat face, the leather briefcase, and how he tried to sell God’s word. Flashback reveals the salesman showing up at the old man’s door. Just like Joe, the old man invited the salesman inside the cabin and treated him to coffee and carrot cake. To the old man, the salesman seemed really pious and self-righteous and someone who followed the ten commandments. The old loner wanted to find out whether he was a true believer or not. He asked the salesman questions about whether God loves him and why God wanted him to sell Bibles instead of living in a mansion with a million dollars. When the salesman tells him that God has a plan and he is exactly where he wants to be, he menacingly asks the salesman whether he would still believe in his God if the old man turned out to be a dangerous person and wouldn’t hesitate to hurt him.
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Joe asks the old man whether he hurt the salesman. The old man speaks of drugging the Bible seller by putting “a little something something” in his coffee. The sedative made him sleepy, and he nodded off. The old man then tied him to the front of a burning stove, took the necktie, and tied that around his eyes like a blindfold. He kept the salesman there for a couple of hours while he burned. He intended to scare him because when one is scared, one tends to be honest. He found it entertaining when the salesman started saying gibberish in pain and then proceeded to pray for God’s mercy and kept repeating, “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners.”
Joe is shocked that he dared to do this to a poor salesman, but the old man wanted to show the salesman who was selling God that when people endure pain and suffering, no old man is sitting somewhere in a cloud caring about anyone down here. When Joe enquires about what happened to the salesman afterward, the old loner tells him that he cut him loose, pointed in the right direction, and sent him on his way. The old man takes out two bottles of hooch from his hidden stash that he calls “the mule” and drinks to “all that death and beauty.” the old man offers him moonshine, but Joe is skeptical about drinking as he fears that he will drug him too. But the old man assures wholeheartedly that he won’t hurt him as he wouldn’t go back on his word.
WHAT DOES JOE TELL ABOUT HIS LIFE AND GENIE?
When the old man asks Joe about his life, he divulges that he is from New Albany, Indiana, grew up in Chattanooga in Tennessee when he was eight years old, got married to Eugenia, aka Genie (Liana Wright-Mark), a second-grade school teacher, and shifted to Knoxville a few years back when he got a job working for her family’s moving company. Genie procured a job at a primary school. Joe, in an impulse, opens up about his anguish over the feeling that sometimes life is conspiring against him. Joe continues to tell him that he feels like standing in wet cement with nothing else around him, feels the cement tightening and hardening around the ankles, and finds it set and unable to move. The slow suffocation starts at his feet, moves up the leg and the back of his spine, and settles at the back of his throat, cutting off his air. He believes that this weight, the paralyzing and choking feeling is the result of his compliant and acquiescent nature, as he has never rebelled or opposed anything.
While trying to cheer him up, the camera slowly moves and focuses on a chest made of wood. He reveals that Genie and he comes from different places, mainly because she grew up with money and he with nothing. Joe also adds that his relationship was also struggling as his wife is distant these days. Joe is also embarrassed because they have been having a hard time trying to have a baby and his wife is convinced that Joe is infertile. The old man could relate to Joe’s problems and felt sympathetic toward him. He asks Joe to be proud of himself as he is a hard-working man trying to make ends meet. The old man calls his own wife ungrateful as she drives him to the brink of insanity by figuring out how to hurt a man.
OLD MAN ENDING EXPLAINED
HOW DID JOE REACH THE CABIN?
The old man asks Joe to retrace the steps to comprehend why he came into the woods. He came to the woods because he wanted to take a hike along the Little River. It has always been his favorite place, and he associates it with the fond memories he had at one point in his life. Since he wanted to get his mind right, he started walking and heard something, a moan, deep breaths coming from somewhere. When he started walking deeper and deeper into the woods, the moan got louder, so he ran until everything went black. He lost consciousness, and when he awoke, he started walking and came across a waterfall and a clearing and then the cabin and the smoke coming from the chimney.
The old man, in turn, tells Joe about the story of Purple Lake, hidden deep in the Smokies, that had special healing powers and how the animals kept the location a secret because they could get healed from any injury by drinking the water from Purple Lake. The old man searched the woods for the lake when he got damaged, but he couldn’t find it. And suddenly, he also heard a moan similar to that of Joe. He followed it, it got louder, and when he woke up, he came face to face with a leopard looking at him with death in her eyes. He watched as the light went out of its eyes, and then the moan stopped. He fought and killed it by stabbing it in the neck with a jagged, sharp stone.
WHY DID JOE KILL GENIE AND THE BIBLE SALESMAN?
When the old man goes to prepare dinner, Joe takes his knife and opens it to find it covered in blood. He runs away from the cabin, but Rascal returns soon after that. Rascal is not a dog but a person, the old man, is terrified of. Rascal has come back from hunting with food for both of them. When the old man asks Rascal about Joe, Rascal tells him that nobody else is in the cabin except for them. Petrified of Rascal, the old man pisses himself. When Rascal remarks that there is no wonder his wife left him, the old man asks Rascal to remind him about what happened. Rascal gives him water from Purple Lake, asks him to drink it, and commands him to enter the wooden chest.
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When he opens the chest again, he finds himself in a home, and the old man finds out that Joe is just a younger version of himself. He becomes a witness to his wife, Genie, getting intimate with her best friend, the Bible salesman, with whom he had started selling Bibles to make ends meet. The moans and the loud breathing from their sexual pleasure made him so angry that he couldn’t control his rage. He killed them both, shooting the Bible salesman in his head while he was praying on his knees and stabbing his wife in her neck with his knife. Genie’s ghost still comes to haunt him in his dreams, and he rarely sleeps because all he can think about are the ghosts of his past. When Joe begs Genie to forgive him, just like the Bible salesman, she says, “It doesn’t work that way.” Rascal turns out to be the Bible salesman with whom his wife had an affair, as they both share a resemblance in their appearance.
WHAT DO THE WOODEN CHEST AND THE PURPLE LAKE SYMBOLISE?
In the climax, the ghost of Joe’s wife, Genie, appears standing in the wooden box with her stabbed neck. The box is significant as it has a connection with the murder of his wife. He might have either stored his wife’s belongings in that chest or used the box to dispose of her body, which is why the old man sees Genie standing in it. There is a picture of a red-haired woman with penetrating eyes in the box. The box function like a portal or a gateway through which he visits and understands what happened in the past. When Rascal makes him enter the box forcefully, he relives the past and remembers killing his wife all over again.
When the old man told the story of the salesman, he said that he let the Bible salesman go after giving him a lot of pain, but in fact, he had killed him when he realized that he was having an affair with his wife. We conclude that the old man makes up stories about people from his past to escape the guilt, regret, and desperation he feels for his actions. He made the story of killing a leopard with a rock, but it alludes to his killing of his wife. Rascal accuses him of getting lost in the woods the next day after committing the brutal murders. Rascal is hell personified for Joe as he is entrusted with the duty of reminding Joe about his past crimes.
After the murders, Joe might have got rid of the bodies in the woods; maybe in the Little River, he used to visit with his grandfather. Since his brain was hardwired to make distorted stories to do away with guilt, he made up a Purple Lake with healing properties. He searched for it to atone for his sins but couldn’t find it. When Rascal gives him the water from Purple Lake, it puts him back into the hellish cycle of violence and guilt instead of casting it aside. He is still carrying the heavy burden of his actions, reliving the memories so often that he has descended into a state of madness and oblivion. Now, Joe is under the control of the ghosts of his past, which seems to make him feel guilty and regretful as often as they please.
The film’s final sequence is a sheer repetition of the opening sequence. After Rascal leaves him, he goes to bed and lies down, as walking down memory lane takes a toll on him. Rascal promises to come back later, as he always does. We see him lying in his red overalls, and suddenly, he is jolted awake agape, to relive his past once again, to see his younger self, and to beg mercy from his wife.
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Old Man (2022) External Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
Where to watch Old Man (2022)
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An unapologetic feminist and vocal critic of sexism. A moody, caffeine-dependant, procrastinating disaster striving for perfection. Believes in the transformative power of any art, especially Cinema and Books.
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