I’m of the somewhat rare opinion that M. Night Shyamalan is one of the few true geniuses working in Hollywood today. This is a filmmaker who has “figured it out,” so to speak, betting on himself by financing his own films and reaping massive rewards in the process.
I would argue that Unbreakable is his masterpiece, not The Sixth Sense, and I will defend Glass to my last breath, but unfortunately, Shyamalan has hit another cold streak, as his latest effort, Knock at the Cabin, disappoints again on the heels of Old, albeit for entirely different reasons.
As with all Shyamalan films, a film critic should always tread lightly in terms of plot description and whatnot, but basically, this apocalyptic film is exactly what its trailer promises — a twist on the home invasion thriller. It follows a couple named Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) and their adopted Chinese American daughter Wen (8-year-old Kristen Cui), whose weekend retreat to the countryside is interrupted by the arrival of four unexpected visitors—teacher Leonard (Dave Bautista), nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a young cook and mother named Adriane (Abby Quinn), and blue-collar worker Redmond (Rupert Grint)—who claim to have shared a similar vision of the end of the world and realized that it can only be stopped if the family in front of them sacrifices one of its own members. If they do not choose, the world will end, and the three of them will be condemned to walk the earth alone forever.
In other words, would you let billions of people die to selfishly save one of your own, and supposing that everything you’ve been told is true, would you want your family to walk the scorched earth for all of eternity? Of course, Eric and Andrew must question whether these four horsemen of the Apocalypse, if you will, are correct in their belief, or whether they’re lunatics with a case of group psychosis.
Though the intruders promise not to hurt the family, they do carry weapons—and not just any weapons, but medieval-looking weapons that appear to have a ceremonial purpose. They warn the family that each time they refuse to decide, there will be grave consequences that occur within both the cabin and across the world at large. And yes, biblical plagues are involved — appropriate for a faith-based tale, which, make no mistake, is a fitting description for Knock at the Cabin. In that sense, it is very much like Shyamalan’s own Signs, though his latest is far more of a downer and not nearly as entertaining.
Let’s start with the “what would you do?” premise behind this movie, which is based on Paul Tremblay’s 2018 horror novel The Cabin at the End of the World. Though it’s a fairly simple one, it’s still quite juicy, and ripe for drama, as Eric and Andrew are faced with an impossible decision. The problem is that they never really grapple with that decision, so Shyamalan largely avoids all that drama inherent in the premise; he practically refuses to engage with the question on a fundamental level.
There’s never any discussion between the two as to who might be better suited to raise Wen on their own, nor is Wen ever asked for her thoughts directly. Of course, asking a child to choose between their parents is a horrifying situation, but at least that would’ve been dramatically interesting. The truth is that Knock at the Cabin fails to have the courage of its own concept, and as a result, it never reconciles with the full weight of its horrific themes. In fact, you’ve seen this kind of thing done far better in the decidedly less commercial Colin Farrell-Nicole Kidman thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which was far grittier and very effective.
Rather than establish the family unit early on so that we care about them, Shyamalan thrusts you into the film’s premise a little too quickly, employing flashbacks throughout to deal with pesky things like character development. He also glosses over the four horsemen of the apocalypse thing, treating it like a reveal (because the twist-loving storyteller has nothing else) rather than vital information we need upfront. Who knew that the intruders represent the different dimensions of the human experience, whatever that means?
It might’ve been more compelling to follow those four characters and learn why they were chosen, and by whom or what, rather than the one-dimensional family at the story’s center. This movie would’ve been more entertaining had Shyamalan traced their paths and explained the circumstances that led each of them to that cabin, rather than have each tell their backstories in monologues.
Indeed, the rules of this world and the scenario presented are never quite clear here, and it’s almost as if Shyamalan and co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman are making them up as they go. Even when they introduce an intriguing idea like the “man made of light,” whom Eric sees in a mirror (he has a concussion, so who knows if it’s a hallucination of sorts), they’re afraid to fully explore it. This toothless thriller feels far too safe, much like the central couple’s relationship.
Though they’re understandably concerned that they were targeted by the intruders because of their sexuality, it turns out that they weren’t “chosen” because they were gay, they were chosen because they themselves had a choice when they adopted Wen; one choice apparently begets another, it seems. Groff and Aldridge are both actually quite good here—in fact, everyone in this delivers fine performances, including action star Bautista, who really does have some dramatic chops—but they’re let down by the material, as it’s Shyamalan’s own thin script that fails the filmmaker. And in laying the groundwork for the ending of this film, its downer of a denouement comes to feel somewhat inevitable.
That said, aided by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (The Lighthouse), Night’s direction is effective, as is this isn’t a total misfire along the lines of The Happening, The Last Airbender, or After Earth. It’s just a rather off-putting movie that’s hard to like.
Shyamalan’s genius often resides in the marketability of his idea, which is easy to sell to mass audiences. “I see dead people” tells you what The Sixth Sense is about in a single line. “A beach that makes you old” is high-concept but one you can sell in a single text to a friend. Knock at the Cabin boasts an equally fascinating hook but it suffers from the opposite problem, as it could’ve used a lot more explanation. This is ultimately a minor Shyamalan movie, and one best left as a curiosity to seek out on Universal’s streaming platform, Peacock.
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