Old Man (2022)
Directed by Lucky McKee
Screenplay by Joel Veach
Starring Stephen Lang & Marc Senter
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay
lest ye be spoiled.
Lucky McKee’s Old Man begins with the eponymous character (Stephen Lang) waking up unable to locate his dog Rascal. The old man lives in a cabin out in the woods; an isolated existence. One day, a man called Joe (Marc Senter) turns up on the old man’s doorstep. Things between the two start off tense. The old man’s reluctant to trust Joe, or anybody who drops by unexpectedly. After a while, the two start to get to know each other, but the old man realises dark truths are starting to come to light.
Old Man is a mysterious cinematic chamber play that tackles the weight of guilt in a story about a man grappling with the horrors of his past. The film revolves around male possessiveness—the urge for men to lay claim and ownership to people, places, and things, though especially women. Joel Veach’s screenplay touches on misogyny and religion in a story that, at times, feels like a strange, unsettling fable about accepting the truth, no matter how hard it is or how ugly the truth proves to be in the end.
Old Man is all about relationships, so it makes sense that the film starts off right away with the relationship between the old man and his dog Rascal, and while at first it may not seem overly significant, this relationship is crucial to how the film portrays the old man and bad men in general. It’s late, after the viewer discovers the truth about the old man, Joe, and ‘Rascal’ that the significance becomes obvious. In the beginning Rascal’s presented as a dog through the old man’s perspective, though we don’t actually see him, however, Rascal is actually the darker version of Joe, who’s actually the younger self of the old man. Thus, the old man—who is Joe—and Rascal—who the old man views as a dog—are the same, meaning men are dogs.
And dog will hunt.
A key image in Old Man is the mounted head of a big cat, which the old man calls “Gingersnatch,” an unusual name that reeks of misogyny and gives the old guy an unsettling air. Gingersnatch is an image central to a theme of male possessiveness and ownership throughout the film. Rascal—when we still think he’s only a dog—is likewise a symbol of possessiveness/ownership. We start the film hearing the old man talking to/about him like one would a human-human relationship, in which each person tries to give and take, but also in which the man acts as patriarchal protector and proverbial man of the house.
Gingernsatch offers much more gendered, violent imagery connected to the old man’s possessive sense of ownership. Once the old man uncovers the dark secrets of his own mind, we realise that he is Joe, and Joe killed his wife years ago. In a flashback sequence depicting younger Joe walking in on his cheating wife, then murdering her and her lover, there’s a perfect moment where the wife’s face fades over the mounted head of Gingersnatch by the fire. It’s a strong image that portrays how the old man views women as objects or trophies to be hunted and owned, albeit to a very dark, murderous end.
“Nobody leaves me.”
During the early conversation between the old man and his visitor Joe, he tells the latter: “Your blood don‘t boil like those that came before you.”
It’s a subtle recognition by the old man that men of his generation behaved badly and violently, yet when we know later that he and Joe are the same person at different periods in one life, this line takes on a much more delusional depth. But it’s a little morsel of the truth early in the film, as the old man knows what he’s done and simply can’t consciously acknowledge it; at least not yet.
Another early piece of the puzzle in Old Man comes through very subtly and has to do with the old man’s loss of faith. Old Joe’s story about the Bible salesman alone is enough to show he isn’t a fan of God or religion, but during his conversation with Young Joe early in their meeting he reveals it wasn’t always so, fully confirmed after he admits the guilty truth to himself later in the film. In one scene, the old man rattles off a sing-song line that mirrors an actual song from the 1950s: “We don‘t smoke and we don‘t chew / And we don‘t go with the girls that do.” This is from “The Battle of Kookamonga” by Homer and Jethro. The line is also a popular Christian saying, which suggests to us early on, before we get any further indication as the plot unfolds, that the old man was, indeed, once a man of faith. So, not only did old man Joe lose his wife and sanity, his brutal act of violence against not only his wife but a fellow Christian wiped his mind free of faith, too. Simultaneously, the line “And we don‘t go with the girls that do” again reveals an additional layer of misogyny with its judgement of female behaviour, essentially dictating what is or isn’t ‘ladylike’ or attractive to men, predicating female behaviour on the enjoyment of men. All to say that there’s an element of patriarchal religion here that intertwines with the existing themes of misogyny within the film’s plot.
Old Man feels like a contemporary fairy tale or fable from the backwoods of America, especially after Old Joe recounts a story about “The Purple Lake.” And its main focus is the violent errors of men, as well as their misogyny. One of the most interesting little elements in Veach’s screenplay, portrayed brilliantly, comes from “the moan” that Old and Young Joe discuss hearing. The moan makes men get lost in the woods. At first it’s magical and pleasant, even erotic. Later, we see the moan is really a Gothic symbol tied to Young Joe’s violent revenge and the possessive misogyny that drives it, tying sexuality and violence together in the male mind.
The entire path Old Joe walks throughout a gradual discovery of his guilt’s source is a Gothic one, paved with “all that death and beauty” he knew as a younger man, and as the film concludes we understand the cycle we’ve witnessed is one he goes through over and over—his own personal version of Hell, a horrifically perfect Tartarean punishment.