Knock knock! Who’s there? Why, it’s M. Night Shyamalan with Knock at the Cabin — another nerve-jangling good time at the movies, in theaters now.
Ever since Shyamalan’s breakthrough feature The Sixth Sense generated the unforgettable line “I see dead people,” the writer-director has specialized in telling stories with a brutally simple hook, designed to unsettle you and stick around long after viewing. His latest film, Knock at the Cabin, is based on Paul G. Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World, and comes with a troubling premise: What would you sacrifice to save the world?
Opening in a quiet January still ruled by box office-conquering Avatar: The Way of Water, Knock at the Cabin takes the hugest of dangers — the end of the world — and reduces it to a savagely intimate microcosm. Young child Wen (Kristen Cui) is enjoying a vacation in an isolated cabin when a huge man in sinister shirtsleeves (Dave Bautista) walks out of the woods and hints at a horrifying proposal. Wen and her adoptive parents, Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge), find themselves trapped with a group of fanatics who are driven by nightmarish visions.
Some movies would use this setup as a springboard for a survival horror in which the family is forced to defend themselves against strange interlopers in thrilling action sequences. But the story goes in a different, more character-driven and unsettling direction. The bad guys are both apologetic and apocalyptic, presenting their challenge in unnerving politeness.
Dave Bautista is excellent as the leader of the gang of shamefaced sociopaths. He’s a looming monolith, a frame-filling physical nightmare whose implacability is made all the more terrifying by his sensitivity. He’s much scarier here than he was as the one-dimensional muscle-bound Bond villain in Spectre, and he builds on the scene-stealing, hushed vulnerability we saw in Blade Runner 2049.
Rupert Grint (the former Harry Potter star from Shyamalan’s recent Apple TV Plus series Servant) is also superb as a twitchy, simmering redneck, adding a dose of violent volatility to the mix. Nikki Amuka-Bird and Abby Quinn have less substantial roles, but they provide some heart and even a couple of chuckles amid the mounting horror.
On the surface, Knock at the Cabin is an oppressive horror story that puts you in the shoes of a kidnapped family. From the cabin’s flimsy and wide-open French doors to the moment where the dad is caught in a nightgown, the family is achingly vulnerable. Most of all, the presence of a young child will have parents wincing throughout (especially if they’ve read the book).
The threatening aspect of the story is agonizing, but there’s a feeling that Shyamalan is pulling his punches. As in Shyamalan’s other recent work, the unnerving atmosphere is reminiscent of movies like Hereditary and Get Out. But he doesn’t commit to the nastiness that gives those films their shocking bite.
Equally, the taut simplicity of the setup isn’t going to fill an entire movie’s runtime. We get a bunch of flashbacks to the relationship between Eric and Andrew, which fleshes out their characters and helps you to identify with them. But the flashbacks are probably the most awkward part of the film. Though watching two people fall in love and support each other through their problems is heartwarming, it’s not always interesting (or at least not as interesting as trying to escape some implacable weirdos in a cabin). That background throws in an intriguing and complicated twist, but it’s never allowed to develop because the characters in question disappear from the story too early.
Knock at the Cabin is sparse and economically narrated, giving us plenty of space to ponder the deeper global themes thrown up by its desperate dilemma. It confronts the reality of a world going to hell and our power to stop it. And unlike the preachy tone of Adam McKay’s apocalyptic satire Don’t Look Up, Shyamalan’s film is more subtle in conveying the responsibility we each take for the future of our planet. Ultimately, that’s the predicament we’re left with: What kind of sacrifices must our generation make to ensure that our children have a world to live in?
And of course, ever since The Sixth Sense, we’re conditioned to expect a twist ending. Shyamalan’s last film, the beach-based shocker Old, undid some of this genre with an overly literal ending that explained everything. Wisely, Knock at the Cabin leaves things more ambiguous.
You have to admire the way M. Night Shyamalan consistently delivers taut and disquieting B-movies with big ideas. Knock at the Cabin may not stretch the nerves as much as similar horror stories, but a Shyamalan film is always welcome when it comes knocking.
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