Knock at the Cabin Review
It is surprisingly fitting that M. Night Shyamalan’s career has been subjected to many twists and turns regarding its reception. However, his style has remained the same, and many elements that define his screenplays and direction are often heralded and dismissed in equal measure. Knock at the Cabin may be Shyamalan working completely in his comfort zone, and that will put off those who have always disliked his films, but it’s also his most astute observation of humanity and an impassioned plea for the world to be better – before it’s too late. An apocalyptic thriller that cribs off modern-day anxieties of Earth’s impending doom, Shyamalan’s latest is a furious work of art that maintains the director’s usual weaknesses to its benefit.
It all starts with a single location – Shyamalan’s post-The Last Airbender career has consisted of films that take a group of people and lock them into the confines of a single locale. In this case, it’s a cabin rented out by Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff), who have decided to go on vacation with their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui). In a remote location away from society, their understanding of the world outside their idyllic retreat is threatened when four strangers appear and hold the family hostage within the cabin. Their mission? To convince one of them to sacrifice the other to stop the apocalypse from happening.
Of course, it’s difficult to tell whether the four strangers are delusional or prophetic. They don’t want to harm the family, but they won’t let them leave the cabin. However, every moment counts, and a sacrifice must be made to stop the apocalypse they firmly believe is happening. Led by Leonard (Dave Bautista), the four strangers attempt to convince Andrew and Eric that what has brought them to their cabin is of the utmost importance.
Based on Paul G. Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, Shyamalan unsurprisingly does away with the ambiguities that make the novel as thought-provoking as it is. Instead, Shyamalan’s screenplay is a sharp and precise stab at a world of selfishness in the face of unending suffering. By the end of Knock at the Cabin, there’s no question what is on Shyamalan’s mind, but what is more satisfying about this film than his others is that its focus creates a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere that lends itself to the point of the film. In many ways, it’s Shyamalan’s pandemic movie, but it ties itself to so many real-world fears that it feels more like the COVID-19 pandemic was just the tipping point in his view of humanity.
The sacrifice of ambiguity will undoubtedly displease some fans of the novel. Still, Shyamalan’s treatment of the source material fits well within his filmography and accentuates his weaknesses to its benefit. There’s still plenty of stilted dialogue, emphasized by an early conversation between Leonard and Wen as he helps her collect grasshoppers outside the cabin. There’s still a deluge of information, and Shyamalan is constantly filling the runtime with pivotal information in small details that culminate in the final act. It’s his curse that characters are more exposition than human because, especially in his current era of films, he’s working closer to The Twilight Zone, where every movie is a new thought exercise in horror.
Knock at the Cabin is always conveying information in the most direct ways – but that helps this film more than his previous works. It’s a movie with unflinching violence, constant reminders of a changing world, and characters committed to their belief systems. Knock at the Cabin works because it is so direct and reflects a modern climate where the news gets worse and worse, but people behave like it’s not their problem. That belief that there is nothing you can do and that you don’t have a choice.
Shyamalan’s fears are not uniquely his own, which is why it benefits the film to feature four strangers completely unrelated to each other who wind up at Andrew and Eric’s door due to a shared vision. Leonard is a second-grade teacher, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a nurse, Adriane (Abby Quinn) is a line cook, and Redmond (Rupert Grint) seems just to be an ex-convict. They live all over the United States but have recently found themselves overwhelmed by the same visions and firmly believe Andrew and Eric can save the world if they make a sacrifice. But, of course, it’s hard to convince two people that the world is ending and that one of their deaths will be what saves it.
However, this is where Shyamalan leans into the genre thrills and presents a barrage of horror within and outside the cabin – the latter of which is shown primarily through news broadcasts. That’s something worth noting as its prominence and the subsequent skepticism it’s met with by Andrew and Eric ties itself neatly to society’s treatment of even the gravest news. It amounts to an oppressive thriller that tries to convince characters naturally of impending doom while love and fear govern their actions. But, in the face of constant pain and suffering, at what point do convictions break and empathy gives way? This is why it’s also unsurprising that Knock at the Cabin’s camerawork is just as direct and focused, with heavy use of close-ups and constant cutting back and forth during conversations. It’s a symphony of blunt storytelling, but ambiguity and a more emotional heart would likely undermine Shyamalan’s intent.
Unfortunately, this is also where Shyamalan struggles: he overindulges and leaves the film’s emotions up to the characters to convey rather than be enhanced by their situation. Andrew and Eric are not very compelling characters, and it’s because every time the film sprinkles in a flashback, it’s to some element of their relationship that doesn’t matter to what is happening in the cabin. They’re characters who are also supposed to make a massive decision together but are rarely given the time to talk. There’s a huge chunk of time during the hostage situation that is just not shown that could have taken Knock at the Cabin from being a thought exercise to something more grounded – even with visions of the apocalypse looming overhead. The four strangers don’t even offer up information about themselves except in an attempt to make themselves less frightening to Andrew and Eric – a fact that the screenplay acknowledges but doesn’t do anything with because every moment not spent on the central plot is wasted time.
That said, everyone’s performances are great and give the characters enough emotion to let Shyamalan work on building the tension. Grint and Quinn might be the weaker of the group, but the four strangers act more as a collective than individuals, so it doesn’t hinder the film. The standout is Bautista, though, as the group leader, leveraging his intimidating physical presence with genuine empathy for the family taken hostage. It’s a layered performance that acknowledges how the character is perceived and how he wishes to be perceived, maintaining composure and intent as he navigates a critical objective with sincerity and sympathy.
Knock at the Cabin’s biggest missteps are merely familiar pitfalls at this point with Shyamalan. This isn’t an excuse for his work, but those who have enjoyed his specific brand of genre film are not going to find anything out of the ordinary here. Instead, it’s a more tightly focused thriller that uses Shyamalan’s mechanical approach to storytelling as a foundation to confront the reality that seems to have forced the film into existence. His latest is brimming with contempt for a world heading steadfastly into extinction, but underneath its violence and bleak vision of the future is the glimmer of hope that Shyamalan has always carried with even in the darkest of times.