Directed by M Night Shyamalan | Written by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman, based on the book The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay | 100 min | ▲▲△△△
I’ve always admired M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to set his films in entirely recognizable realities but still push his plots to the edge of plausibility, where faith and fantasy play a strong role. It’s part of the reason why Unbreakable is his best film, The Sixth Sense a close second. I’ve also got time for Signs, The Village, Lady In The Water, and Split. I even found things to like about The Happening. I have not been impressed by his more recent output, Glass or Old.
Knock At The Cabin is based on preexisting material, which gives Shyamalan a chance to break away from some of his more predictable tropes. This picture doesn’t really have one of his patented second- or third-act twists, unless you consider the resolution of the plot itself a twist but its telegraphed in the trailers and from the movie’s opening few minutes.
A handsome couple, Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge), take their adorable daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui) to a short-term rental cabin in the woods — it’s lake-adjacent and filled with books, a lovely spot. Wen’s out catching grasshoppers as the enormous Leonard (Dave Bautista) shows up, accompanied by three friends, Adriane (Abby Quinn), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Redmond (Rupert Grint). They’re on a mission from god, having all experienced apocalyptic visions that have led them to this particular cottage…
Or have they? It’s all a little vague, TBH. These four home invaders show up at this remote place and tie up Eric and Andrew. They then insist one member of this little family has to sacrifice another to avert the coming doomsday, but they don’t do a great job explaining how they all were so convinced of their cause. Their fervour isn’t properly framed or sold, and you’d think in order to succeed they would have done more to sway their captors, or even explain why it had to be them and not someone else.
I suspect that’s intentional, to sow more doubt in the audience that they’re just delusional, but we don’t need the help with that impression.
This is just one of the problems with this movie, but it’s a big one.
Another one is at least a couple of instances of Horror Character Behaviour, where the people in the movie act in a way that puts them into increasing danger for the sake of the plot. This kind of writing is insulting to the audience, and is a big part of the reason I find so few horror movies genuinely watchable. In this movie one of the family members, who at this point has been assaulted and tied up, gets ahold of a weapon but doesn’t immediately kill the intruders to end the threat to the family. That makes zero sense.
There’s also the weird political overtones of this being a gay couple accosted and tortured by a group of fundamentalists insisting the family destroy itself in order to avert the apocalypse. The conservative optics of that are never particularly clear, nor are they resolved, but it sure feels queasy.
Finally, the film goes out of its way — averting its camera eye — from the violence, which really diminishes the film’s impact. I’m no gorehound but this feels like a case where the picture’s awkward efforts at profundity would’ve been improved by not looking away.
I’ve seen reviewers compare this to Michael Tolkien’s bonkers fantasy, The Rapture, and that 32-year-old movie does a better job in exploring the possibility of a Christian end-of-the-world scenario. In contrast, the movie this made me think of is The Medusa Touch from 1978, an under-appreciated supernatural thriller where Richard Burton has the ability to cause disasters. In that picture the breadth of his abilities is teased through the film’s running time, with suspense building in a way that makes us slowly understand and fear his power. Here, the possibility this quartet of weirdos might actually be onto something feels like it’s kind of a given from the jump. Any suspense about the picture’s supernatural bona fides is only due to its clumsiness in delivering them.
That’s not to say Knock At The Cabin is sloppy — Shyamalan is a stylish pro, the editing and way he moves his camera has a Spielbergian grace. The performances are committed, especially Bautista, who manages to convey a surprising vulnerability in his imposing physicality. Leonard feels like a cousin to the supporting character he played in Blade Runner 2049.
But the movie just doesn’t hold together. It’s a forgettable little parable asking us to have some faith in the impossible while not doing a great job making its case.