After What Are You Thankful For? was a success, writer/director Thomas Crudup began work on his passion projects, The Old Year and The New Year. If there was any doubt regarding Crudup’s talent, then these two films quickly put those doubters to rest. The first, The Old Year, is restrained and beautiful, telling the touching story of an unnamed elderly man on the last day of his life — with a glimpse of what comes after.
Over black, we hear a woman say, “Today is…” Before she can finish, the man (played by Edward Scarborough) wakes up. We follow him through his morning routine, the camera pulled back, allowing the action to take place on its own. These scenes are some of the most effective, with Scarborough lending gentle frailness to the man with no name. He showers, makes coffee, gets dressed, moving at a natural pace, unhurried. To him, this day is no different from any other. Scarborough doesn’t have many lines in the film, but he sells the character through his mannerisms and the way he looks at things with a cocked head. There’s no other actor who could’ve played this character like Scarborough does.
The man leaves his apartment building and begins walking down the street, when suddenly a car swerves to avoid a dog that’s run into the road and drives onto the curb, colliding with the man. The screen fills with black. We hear the same woman’s voice from the film’s opening, but she has more to say this time around: “Today is the day…” Her voice is soft and comforting, almost as if she’s speaking to a child.
The screen slowly fills in and we see that the man is in a hospital. Someone (we’re never told who) has placed a small Christmas tree on his bedside table, with a card that reads “Get Well Soon!” The calendar shows that it’s December 31. The man’s eyes slowly open and he looks around, realizing where he is. This scene mimics the film’s opening remarkably, but with some slight differences. He quickly gets out of the hospital bed, unhooking tubes as he goes. He frantically gets dressed. The camera follows his distress as well, taking on less fluid, more frantic movements.
The man leaves the hospital, hoping not to attract attention. He’s a man on a mission, though one we’re not privy to just yet. He makes a call from a payphone and speaks to someone, begging for just five minutes of the person’s time. The person seems to agree and the man hangs up, hurrying off down the street.
The man arrives at a coffee shop and finds a middle-aged woman waiting for him. He asks her not to speak and then sets out everything he’s done wrong and everything he could’ve done better throughout his entire life. This scene is terribly heartbreaking, with Scarborough supposedly pulling moments from his real life to give the character a little more realism. It’s no surprise that he received numerous accolades from several film critics. We learn that the woman is the man’s daughter, and when she asks, tears in her eyes, why he’s told her all this, he responds, “Because today is the day I die.”
The rest of the film follows the man as he makes amends with several other people. It’s never revealed how he knows that today is the day he will die (at least not yet), but it doesn’t matter. Scarborough sells the man’s determination to leave the world with a clean slate.
It isn’t until the end of the film that we realize that everything is not as we thought it was. As he lies in his bed after writing up instructions on how to deal with his dead body, he looks at the ceiling and slowly closes his eyes. It’s then that he hears the familiar woman’s voice and she’s finally able to complete her sentence: “Today is the day you wake up.” The screen then fills with a close-up of a child’s eye opening before slamming to black.
This final image confounded audiences during the six months that they waited for The New Year. Crudup refused to say anything about that final image, mentioning that hopefully audiences would understand once they saw the next film. He also has remained notoriously tight-lipped regarding the story’s genesis, saying only that it was his way of dealing with his life after prison as well as rationalizing his father’s death, which happened while Crudup was in jail.
Once again, Crudup delivered an intriguing piece of cinema history that deserves to be watched and re-watched, back-to-back with The New Year.It should be a yearly tradition in every cinephile’s home.