Knock At The Cabin is Flawed but Well Made and Thoughtful

Neither terrible nor great, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest Knock at the Cabin represents a return to a more minimalist setting like 2002’s Signs. Focusing on a few characters in a confined, secluded location with more significant events abound. Only this time, instead of aliens invading, there’s the presence of four unannounced guests claiming that a family of three vacationing at their cabin must make a sacrifice or the apocalypse will happen. The family comprises Andrew (Ben Aldridge), Eric (Jonathan Groffo), and their precocious adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). The four strangers holding the family hostage are Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint). They each have homemade weapons, but unlike most home invasion scenarios, they seem more preoccupied with trying to convince Andrew, Eric, and Wen of their shared visions and how the world will end if they don’t make a sacrifice.

The setup to Knock at the Cabin is intriguing. The way the film opens, in particular, is very anxious and unsettling. Shyamalan opens with Wen playing out front of the cabin catching grasshoppers while Andrew and Eric are in the back. All of a sudden, a big hulking man named Leonard shows up. Shyamalan shoots their conversation in tight close-ups, and there’s sufficient tension throughout as to what exactly this man is doing and whether he is a danger to Wen. It’s a fantastic scene. The opening 15 minutes or so are taut and suspenseful as we’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on here and why these four people must do what they must.

The most considerable stigma with M. Night Shyamalan films is the anticipation the audience has of wanting to guess what major twist is coming. After all, his earlier films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village were all built around a twist of some sort. Of these, the most famous twist is The Sixth Sense and how Bruce Willis was dead the whole time, for instance. Sorry if you haven’t seen The Sixth Sense but come on, it’s 24 years old now. With Knock at the Cabin, Shyamalan tries to play it as straightforwardly as possible. There aren’t any significant twists out of the left field. Everything happens more organically, like Signs, which is about family and faith. Knock at the Cabin, too, is about family and faith.

Other interesting themes are going on in Knock at the Cabin. It’s not a story Shyamalan came up with himself. It’s an adaptation of The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul G. Tremblay. Here Shyalaman is working with two other screenwriters as opposed to just himself, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman. The film’s emotional core is made up of flashbacks where we see the trials and tribulations Andrew and Eric go through as a same-sex couple and their adoption of Wen. Much of the film’s suspense is about whether these guys are crazy or are they telling the truth. Is the group attacking Andrew and Eric because they’re a same-sex couple? Is this a hate crime? Are they members of some crazy right-wing doomsday cult? The film breaks down its characters into believers vs. nonbelievers.

In a film like this, what determines its success is the actors’ performances. Thankfully here, all the performances are well done. As mentioned in the media, the highlight performance is Dave Bautista as Leonard, the group leader. In a way, Bautista represents the entire mood of the film itself. He’s physically imposing but gentle as well. You get the sense he doesn’t want to be doing this, but he has to. He represents the tragedy of characters not being able to entirely understand what they comprehend around them. At least he feels empathy for Andrew, Eric, and Wen for the situation he’s put them in.

Another highlight performance is by newcomer Kristen Cui as Wen. She’s bright and empathetic, like some kids who don’t feel real, without being too much of a movie caricature. Shyamalan is no stranger to directing kid actors, and he gets a compelling performance out of Cui. Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint are all good as Leonard’s cohorts, who also don’t quite understand what is going on but know they have to do this. Grint especially represents a more maniacal character who is more of a loose cannon than Leonard, who is primarily calm and relaxed. Grint is reuniting with Shyamalan after starring in his Apple+ tv series Servant which I have not seen but heard good things about. Rounding out the cast are Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge as, the same-sex couple who also have to get over their misconceptions about why Leonard and the group are there.

Knock at the Cabin is flawed, for sure. The screenplay is a little too spelled out for the audience, along with dialogue, a problem Shyamalan has had in the past. While you’re in some suspense about whether Leonard and his gang are telling the truth, it spells out where it’s going for you. There’s not much left for the audience to figure out really after the first half hour. It’s equivalent to playing a game like chess to now we’re playing checkers. Shyamalan’s use of news footage to recap what’s happening in the outside world, much like Signs, is a little too on the nose and silly. While there is some ambiguity, like why exactly Leonard’s group has to sacrifice themselves instead of Andrew and Eric refusing to make a choice, mostly everything is spelled out for the audience.

Still, this is a positive step in the right direction for M. Night Shyamalan after two disappointing efforts in Glass and Old. Aesthetically the film is excellent to look at, and unlike other movies that feature only a few characters, such as The Whale, it doesn’t feel stagey. The film is set in my hometown of Burlington County and captures the pine barren’s desolateness well. The cast is another thing that keeps the movie from feeling stagey and boring. As with all Shyamalan films, my advice is to not come in as a detective trying to figure out the twists. Let it organically play out. Go in knowing the least amount possible. Knock at the Cabin is not scary but is sufficiently tense with some interesting themes.

*** out of ****



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