A pervading theme in M. Night Shyamalan’s work is how society can be better, even if it comes at a cost. In his attempts to provide various forms of suspense, sometimes more effectively than others, even when Shyamalan is layering some dark humor on the surface, I find it clear that he’s a “glass half full” kinda guy. Knock at the Cabin seems to be challenging this notion. It’s dealing with a possible apocalypse and presenting very little in the way of clear hope for the characters involved. Being a more than capable showman when he puts his best foot forward, however, the film finds the right ways to balance impending doom with thrills that will hold the audience’s attention. As a result, this movie is the filmmaker’s best since Signs.
The story wastes little time in its setup. Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) are vacationing at a remote cabin with their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). A large man, Leonard (Dave Bautista), approaches Wen outside, attempting to make nice, only for three more strangers (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint) to appear behind him, wielding makeshift weapons. While Wen and her dads attempt to barricade themselves inside the cabin, the group forces their way in, ties up the family, and tells them they have to make a choice – sacrifice one of their own, or else the world will end.
Adapted from Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 novel, “The Cabin at the End of the World,” I’m not sure if it’s because there were hands on this screenplay (Steve Desmond & Michael Sherman) before Shyamalan wrote his own draft, but I was struck right away by the straightforward nature of the dialogue. Whether or not one appreciates this quirk of the director, his characters tend to speak in a stylized manner that has felt off-putting in the past (The Happening and Old come to mind specifically). Perhaps it’s because Knock at the Cabin is a serious affair (with moments of humor), but there’s little time for Shyamalan’s dialogue-related eccentricities. Instead, for a premise challenging all the characters, their general disposition is rooted in a reasonable level of reality.
This speaks to the caliber of acting on display. It’s a small cast with little time for deeper characterization, but this team makes it all work. Groff and Aldridge turn in strong performances as a couple who counter each other. Aldridge’s Andrew serves as the skeptic, while Groff’s Eric is at least more empathetic to this insane scenario. Young Cui provides what’s needed as the cast’s most innocent and pure member. And while the invaders are each memorable, it is once again impressive to see Bautista’s choices paying off in such stellar ways.
Inspired by his work in Blade Runner 2049, Shyamalan very clearly understands how to use Bautista’s imposing figure to the advantage of this film. He’s a large man, covered in tattoos, yet he’s soft-spoken, with so much effort put into being as gentle as he can be. Asking the audience to go along with this premise is not necessarily a major risk (why go to the movies if you can’t even hop on to a basic setup), but saddling so much of the exposition with the former wrestling star means trusting him to relay a lot of information, and nail the emotion required to show he’s sensible yet unmovable in his beliefs. Bautista knocks it out, and we have further proof that the man is destined for more great roles.
Shyamalan is the other main star here, and I’m not just talking about his signature cameo (which is a fun one this time around). Having self-funded his past few films, whatever the case may be here, he’s still operating on a smaller level and getting to do a lot of creative stuff because of it. Working with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who has been making a solid impression with films such as The Lighthouse and The Northman, Shyalaman has delivered something that once again shows just how strong a visual filmmaker he is. Between the blocking of this cast in a small space, the use of close-ups, creative zooms, and other ways of depicting impactful moments, this may be a studio film, but there are clear ideas in mind for how to deliver something with purpose in its visual design.
This speaks well to the unfolding story. One may pick up on certain ideas in play, given the characters involved and the various suggestions occurring, but even as a primarily linear presentation, the solid foundation allows for a proper level of effect. Being an R-rated feature (Shyalman’s second, after The Happening), when violence begins to occur, there’s nothing gratuitous about it. Meaning is associated with the toll these events have on the characters. At the same time, with so much doom and gloom seemingly placed on the horizon, there’s a spirit within these people who want to believe in hope. Regardless of where things go, Shyamalan deserves credit for at least wanting his audience to go on a journey that can ultimately leave them feeling a certain way, even if it was hell getting there.
There really is a lot to admire about Knock at the Cabin. It presents a wild scenario to deal with, yet the film is constructed to feel rather intimate. A strong cast allows for many moments to really sink in, especially as the camera lingers in close-up on their eyes in many instances. As a thriller, even when special effects are required to convey a certain sense of immediacy, this movie knows how and when to show its hand rather than overdo it. Plus, the score by Herdís Stefánsdóttir is the proper level of tense and experimental in how it plays with bass and the environment. As another unique experience from Shyamalan, Knock at the Cabin presents a suspenseful cinematic experience that holds the audience captive, letting go just at the right time.