To some, M. Night Shyamalan has grown only more divisive as a filmmaker in these last slew of years. To others, he’s nobly pushed himself even farther from the competition by taking bigger swings with wealthier pay-offs. Although he won audiences back with 2016’s Split, his next two movies, Glass and Old, flipped the switch and received polarized reactions from critics and moviegoers alike. Nonetheless, people can’t get enough of him (as proven by the box office). Deep down inside, we all know he’s still got it. His cinematic eye is as agile as ever and his mind ventures into terrifying corners that are often too taboo for the big screen. This brings us to his latest work, Knock at the Cabin, which is not only his most well-rounded and finely tuned film in years but also his most accessible – love or hate him.
Based on the 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World by author Paul G. Tremblay, we follow an unorthodox family of three as they’re vacationing in a remote cabin in the Pennsylvania woods. Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) take their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) on a much-needed break away from the city but are soon interrupted by four armed strangers: Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Redmond (Rupert Grint), and Adriane (Abby Quinn). Leonard’s first eerie encounter with Wen quickly escalates into a home invasion, tying Eric and Andrew hostage in the process. However, this cryptic group is actually not here to hurt our family trio. Leonard, the self-appointed leader of the four, reveals that everyone has been brought to this cabin by divine fate to stop the impending apocalypse. In order to save the world, a selfless sacrifice has to be made.
Though these distressed yet self-composed visitors are not here to physically harm the family, they each bring what appears to be large and imposing gardening tools, some oddly fixed together. Only the family of three can save humanity by sacrificing one of themselves by their own hands, but if they refuse to comply, Leonard and his associates will use their tools to unleash a new plague upon every living being on Earth, fast-forwarding the imminent doom. Knock at the Cabin, like the best M. Night Shyamalan films, is not so much driven by the core mystery clouding its narrative. Regardless if this biblical armageddon is real or not, what really captivates the audience are live-or-die questions of belief and choice. Are you capable of believing in something greater than yourself and how much are you willing to lose to save the ones you love?
From start to finish, Knock at the Cabin is a master class in suspense. Shyamalan wastes no time in cranking the tension from zero to eleven, immediately hooking the viewer. And because the film does such a good job of prioritizing character over its mystery gimmick, this intensity never lets up. Similarly, Old was at its best in this regard during its second act, when the cast ensemble was left to their own demise stranded on an empty beach, knowing that they didn’t have time to spare before death. In Knock at the Cabin, you’ll only believe in this supposed apocalypse when Shyamalan wants you to, allowing the actors to thrive in the intimate setting of the cabin itself, questioning their faith in one another as they run out of time. It’s almost like watching theatre Shyamalan-style, reaching new territory for the Indian-American storyteller.
Dave Bautista gives a bone-chilling performance that continues to prove his range as arguably the best wrestler-turned-actor of our time. However, his role as Leonard isn’t impressive because he’s horrifying or even villainous. Bautista just feels so believably grim, like a true harbinger of doom. His warnings about the end of days are less looney and maniacal and more enduring and sorrowful, which further complicates the moral dilemma at hand. This is also seen with Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Abby Quinn, who all get their standout moment to shine but are not given as much time. In the end, this is really Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge’s show though. The leading duo endlessly captivates as their on-screen love is tested by destiny. Along with the charming newfound talent in Kristen Cui, they capture the realness of a found family who must make an unthinkable choice to survive.
Knock at the Cabin is strategically shot by cinematographers Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer, the former of which worked on The Witch, The Lighthouse, and The Northman with director Robert Eggers. To no surprise, this psychological horror film is as visually gripping and transfixing, but with a Shyamalan twist. With most of the story set within a cozy cabin, the staging of scenes is always purposeful, each character feeling like a chess piece that Shyamalan is moving and setting up for some kind of effective play. Elsewhere, when we see sequences of the alleged biblical plagues that Leonard and his crew unleash across the globe, Shyamalan evokes the style of the master of disaster himself, Roland Emmerich. The juxtaposition of these images with the intimacy of the cabin blurs the line of reality, making us go back and forth on what we truly believe is happening.
Alas, the one minor hindrance to Knock at the Cabin seems to be a reoccurring habit of Shyamalan’s. The film surprisingly doesn’t have as many major twists and turns as one would expect from Shyamalan, but it still features a little too much overt explanation by the end when we already clearly understand what’s going on. This isn’t as uncanny as when Old spent its last 15 minutes explaining everything verbatim, yet you can’t help but wonder how stronger of a finale this could have been if Shyamalan simply let things speak for themselves. Furthermore, this movie adaptation strays greatly from the source material in the second half. Writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman originally wrote the script with Shyamalan doing a final rewrite before filming. Fans of the book might want to go in open-minded as this adaptation succeeds in its own way.
M. Night Shyamalan makes it look all too easy with Knock at the Cabin. This probably won’t win over all of his detractors, but that was never going to happen at this point and that’s perfectly fine. If you’ve found yourself going back and forth on his work, Knock at the Cabin flaunts the best of his sensibilities for you to finally decide where you stand. Pulling such a feat off so effortlessly this late into his career just shows how much creative fuel he’s got left. Even if he’s not to your liking, we should be so lucky to have unabashed storytellers like Shyamalan leading modern horror. As a bonus treat, this film settles Dave Bautista as the most dynamic of the wrestler-turned-actors, showing that he’s got a long career in store after his time as Drax in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy franchise comes to an end.