Knock at the Cabin, 2023.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, Dave Bautista, Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Abby Quinn.
While vacationing, a girl and her parents are taken hostage by armed strangers who demand that the family make a choice to avert the apocalypse.
Co-writer/director M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t have any tricks up his sleeve with Knock at the Cabin, which is one of its greatest strengths. It’s gut-punch filmmaking with no intention of subverting expectations but amplifying tension across its nasty premise and fate of the world stakes. It is simultaneously sad yet devastatingly hopeful work tapping into love, bigotry, religious fervor, doomsday cultism, and sacrifice. It’s a reminder that M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t need to whip up mind-blowing reveals, as his storytelling prowess and knack for maintaining thrills stand on their own when the material is solid enough for him to deliver something impactful.
Working on the screenplay with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman (based on the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay), Shyamalan arguably already has a winning script, covering up his biggest flaw as a filmmaker. There are no cop-outs, allowing suspense to mount through complicated character dynamics in some of the best performances the director has ever coaxed from an ensemble.
While vacationing at an isolated remote cabin in the woods, married couple Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge), alongside their young daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), are visited by a group of strangers and taken hostage to plead and persuade that the apocalypse is among us and that only they can prevent it by sacrificing a member of their family. Suicide is a no-go; one has to kill another, and perhaps they were chosen because the family, despite having no blood relation to their child and having a marriage that a good portion of society is fervently against the backward views, carries the purest form of love.
The home invaders are led by Dave Bautista’s Leonard, a socially awkward second-grade teacher; it’s a performance that feels it shouldn’t work for the sheer ridiculousness alone of the former WWE champion and his heavily tattooed, hulking physique passing for an elementary school teacher. However, he is a weird and offbeat in a manner befitting of the typical idiosyncratic acting turns found in M. Night Shyamalan movies, but with an anxious and escalating urgency layered onto those tics suggesting that there might be some truth to their wacky ramblings about impending plagues. Remember, they aren’t here to cause violence or harm, just an understanding that they are being truthful.
Upon breaking into the cabin and tying Eric and Andrew up, M. Night Shyamalan uses the confined space to home in on the psychological aspects of the premise, which quickly turns more serious and fatal as the other members of the group (Nikki Amuka-Bird’s Sabrina, Abby Quinn’s Ardiane, and Rupert Grint’s Redmond) take turns offing themselves in an attempt to make a point that the visions and plagues they speak of will become a reality. There’s also enough information about them and their distinctiveness to make viewers care for them. One also gets the impression that M. Night Shyamalan has finely tuned the storytelling to where it’s easy to believe that Eric and Andrew want nothing to do with this craziness, whereas viewers have every reason to be convinced.
The downside to all this straightforwardness is that there is a high predictability level to Knock at the Cabin, right down to Eric and Andrew starting to perceive the situation differently to some escape and chase antics. It also occasionally feels like the plot is circling itself. Whether or not what’s happening is real (the family is shown TV news covering the arrival of each plague), there’s another issue brought up regarding whether a society that is still deeply bigoted (there are several brief flashbacks dealing with nuanced homophobia and the inability to be gay in public) deserves to be saved; it’s a hot button issue that M. Night Shyamalan could have and should have pushed more.
The plagues also dabble in the scientific, making for some intriguing social commentary that some people quickly dismiss what they can see with their own two eyes to cling to their perfect idyllic existence as a family. And the fact that one of the plagues involves a virus that targets children and triggers a worldwide lockdown, it’s difficult to view the film as ill-advised conservative propaganda, considering it’s not all biblical end-of-the-world chaos.
Despite the story’s compelling nature, M. Night Shyamalan has once again deployed some horrific cinematography (courtesy of Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer) that inexplicably often cuts off the heads of characters and fixates on inanimate objects. There are scenes so distractingly out of focus that you begin to wish the film was directed by someone else (these issues persisted throughout Old).
Still, Knock at the Cabin is so locked into its stakes, humanity, and tragedy that it rises up to be one of M. Night Shyamalan’s best movies. That’s not exactly saying much considering the highs and lows of his career, but the intensity on display and moving climax, all anchored by gripping performances from actors on the proper oddball wavelength, are more than enough reason to knock at the cabin.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com