Narratively simple, but thematically complex, Knock at the Cabin is director and co-writer M. Night Syhamalan’s most impressive feat in quite some time. Based on a novel by Paul Tremblay, Knock at the Cabin finds the equally loved and loathed filmmaker working well within his wheelhouse, aided by tremendous performances, an impressive sense of style, and a razor sharp concept. While it does occasionally showcase Shyamalan’s notoriously clunky dialogue, Knock at the Cabin becomes one of the director’s most memorable and thoughtful efforts. He hasn’t made a film with the power to linger in the viewer’s memory this much since The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs.
The film gets off to a fast start, filling in gaps along the way via flashbacks and dumps of snappily written, but obviously expository dialogue. Fathers Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) have brought their adopted and soon to be eight year old daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), to a rented cabin in the woods for a family vacation. Their relaxing getaway is short lived, however, when a quartet of mysterious strangers (Dave Bautista, Abby Quinn, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Rupert Grint) invade the cabin and take them hostage. The strangers, led by Bautista’s disarmingly kind second grade teacher named Leonard, tell the family that they have been chosen by some sort of higher power to help stave off the apocalypse, but in order to do so, Eric, Andrew, and Wen will have to sacrifice one of their own. If they don’t, everyone on earth will die except for them, and while they’ll still be a family, they are doomed to being eternally alone. For each refusal to do so, the strangers insist they will unleash a plague upon the world.
The story at the heart of Knock at the Cabin is a simple one: an apocalyptic riff on the famous trolley problem. But the reasoning and journey behind the problem is more fascinating and dramatically loaded than the ultimate destination, apocalypse or not. The script from Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman has a fair bit of mystery to it, even if some of this is rather obvious and on the nose (particularly when it comes to the symbolic value of the visitors themselves). But this is a work that has taken a stripped down premise and added a lot of modern and timely value to it.
In many ways, Knock at the Cabin is Shyamalan’s most political film, arguably biting off more than it can chew at some points, but always hitting its talking points without coming across as didacticism. The story revolves around a same sex couple trying to protect their child, and while initially Knock at the Cabin comes across like a metaphor for the various ways society tries to get queer people to change their identities (something made more apparent by the aforementioned flashbacks designed to better flesh out hot headed Andrew and the far more cautious Eric’s personalities), the focus quickly shifts to larger ethical and societal questions. The fact that Shyamalan is able to do all of this without ignoring the queerness at the heart of the story is quite a feat.
The time-sensitive, lightning pace of Shyamalan’s single setting horror melodrama covers a lot of bases. It’s clear from the start that there’s some sort of major coincidence at play, and while some filmgoers might balk at a film that’s literally built around contrivance, Shyamalan leans into this gambit instead of running away from it, showing a great deal of respect for the intelligence of the viewer. The mystery isn’t that Knock at the Cabin will all come down to some intricately woven coincidence, but that such a thing could be explained in a lot of different ways. Is it the result of mental illness, poorly interpreted dreams and visions, lives spent in social media echo chambers, past slights, or there could be something biblical in nature behind all of this.
Shyamalan wants the viewer to try to think about all of these matters at once, much in the same way that the family is struggling to keep up with their continually evolving peril. It’s emotional overkill, but it’s meant to be too much to handle. If it didn’t feel like too much, there would be no immediacy. The single setting forces the viewers to be locked in the room with these questions, but Knock at the Cabin is never a static viewing experience. Making the most of some carefully adopted zooms, close-ups, tilts, and movements, Shyamalan does everything possible to make his work cinematic without distracting from a story that benefits most from stillness. While the cabin itself isn’t all that much to look at from a production design standpoint, everything happening within the structure never comes across like a stage play adapted to the screen.
Such material requires a great cast to pull it all off, and Shyamalan has put together a brilliant ensemble, led by a potentially career defining performance from Bautista. As the imposing looking, but soft spoken Leonard, Bautista commands ever second of his screen time. Bautista never portrays Leonard as a zealot, but rather as a broken hearted soul forced into having difficult conversations by a cruel twist of fate. He wants to have a talk, not an argument. Bautista differentiates the character from the rest of his “co-workers” – especially Grint’s borderline psychopath – by always showing how he sympathizes with the family’s predicament. He has wonderful chemistry with young Cui, and has perfect counterpoints in Aldridge and Groff, the latter of whom is almost equally impressive as the multi-dimensional bedrock of the family.
Despite all of this, Knock at the Cabin – like so many Shyamalan efforts before it – will be a take it or leave it proposition. On the way out of the screening I attended, there were just as many people snickering or moaning about what they saw as there were moviegoers who found themselves enchanted and engaged. This is one of those films where I think the split reaction makes things all the more interesting. Any film that inspires such a wide array of responses makes for a great conversation starter, something that very few movies these day aspire to outside of superhero franchise movies designed to make fans speculate about where things go from one entry to another. And that’s ultimately what this film is about: making people talk about what they just saw unfold. The fact that Shyamalan’s big theoretical swing also happens to be one of his most entertaining and best composed efforts is just a bonus.
Knock at the Cabin opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, February 3, 2023.
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