Review: Knock at the Cabin

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Stars: Dave Bautista, Kristen Cui, Nikki Amuka-Bird

Boy, it’s been a tough week for being gay at the end of the world. For all of this movie’s apocalyptic prognosticating, poor M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t possibly have foreseen the furore drummed up six days ago by Craig Mazin and Peter Hoar’s TV expansion of The Last of Us which, in it’s third episode, embellished the back story of minor characters Bill and Frank to the simultaneous celebration and consternation of, well, everyone. The world’s buzziest show made ripples across the internet. Now appearing in the wake of that, Knock at the Cabin feels – quite unintentionally – like a strange thematic echo.

Not that this is original material either. Shyamalan’s latest is extrapolated from Paul Tremblay’s book The Cabin at the End of the World; a dive into speculative fiction for an extreme version of the classic Trolley Problem. Partners Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) have taken their foster daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) for an impromptu trip to a posh woodland cabin. Wen has been left to amuse herself collecting grasshoppers in the forest, where she is interrupted by hulking stranger Leonard (Dave Bautista) and his three super-serious chums. Things escalate quickly into full home-invasion mode. Eric is left concussed and tied to a chair beside his beloved Andrew, with Wen cowering between them. Their uninvited guests have quite the ultimatum to present; choose to sacrifice a member of their family, or cause the deaths of over 7 billion people. Party poopers.

It’s a juicy one-setting proposition, and Shyamalan makes great hay out of it right off the bat. The beginning of Knock at the Cabin grabs and confronts you with screen-filling close-ups of Bautista and Cui facing off; piquing a sense of stranger-danger even before things get significantly crazier. In the most positive news, this may stand as a career-best performance from the former, equal parts benevolent and ineffably sinister (perhaps its the homemade lance in his hand, perhaps its the arms the size of New Hampshire).

Between Bautista’s soft-spoken prophesising and Shyamalan’s continuing playfulness, act one sells a barking mad premise through sheer force of will. Flanking Leonard are twitchy Redmond (Rupert Grint), perky Adriane (Abby Quinn) and sympathetic Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird). As with 2021’s similarly giddy Old, Shyamalan keeps his antagonists’ performances at fever pitch, drawing out a sense of collective hysteria that energises proceedings. But only for so long. The quartet’s methods of persuasion amount to escalating attempts to elicit compassion from Eric and Andrew, but they face an uphill battle for credibility. Eric can barely see straight after his blow to the head while Andrew – a jaded human rights lawyer – remains staunchly sceptical on the subject of humanity’s worth. If it were up to him their family would walk the earth alone…

Flashbacks dotted through the narrative open up the movie to a nominal degree and pepper in a few key character beats – cherishable considering how little preamble there is before that titular knocking – but the whole suffers from intrinsically repetitive construction. The first significant death is a grim shocker (again, like Old, Shyamalan tilts further into horror than one might initially anticipate), but what follows amounts to a set of diminishing returns. Time spent as we escalate toward an ending that increasingly has a lot riding on it.

Shyamalan’s history with endings is notorious. And while his chequered career had shrugged off the expectation for last-minute twists, recent entries such as Split and Old have started to reignite this flame. With so much of Knock at the Cabin riding on whether Leonard and co.’s incredible story indeed holds water, the final stretch feels strangely anticlimactic. Where Shyamalan is unflinching in some scenes, he is oddly coy in others. The dramatic beats he chooses to hit strongly aren’t necessarily the strongest. One wonders to what degree the editing here was a tactical negotiation with the studio. It’s unclear who won.

This is, effectively, an old fashioned B-movie given A-movie status (something tipped by the use of a classic, dusty Universal logo instead of their shiny current one). But where some B-movies have rightly attained cult status and have outsized their origins, a greater number of mediocre ones have slipped into obscurity. In the scope of Shyamalan’s filmography – regardless of what you think of it – Knock at the Cabin feels slight, let alone in the wider context of modern pop cinema itself. The technical proficiency will generate a small army of staunch defenders, but even in this regard Shyamalan feels like he’s treading water (a key suspense sequence for young Cui is pulled straight from the superior The Village).

And yet… and yet… I’d be perfectly happy if this filmmaker presented us another tale of the unexpected 18 months from now, and kept doing so – like he has – for the foreseeable. There’s something reassuring in mid-tier, mid-budget sci-fi yarns that meet mid-level expectations. Despite a strong start, this one flounders come the end, but there’s more effortless gusto in the presentation here than in half of cinema’s more ambitious also-rans. And there’s a lot to be said for a tidy 95 minute running time. In spite of the flaws and limitations (we’re clearly still in the cycle of COVID-era productions), I say keep ’em coming, M. Night.

5 of 10

1 thought on “Review: Knock at the Cabin

  1. Great review. This one looks like anathema to me, but I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I believe some people mesh with M’s MO, others do not. Sans Signs, I do not. Also, the second, longer trailer released for this that I’ve seen before what feels like every movie in the theatre for the last two or three months really did a lot to convince me not to sit through this one – even with a regal pass where the viewing would essentially be included in my membership and so, at least at time of viewing, essentially “free.”
    I do hope M continues. I am quite the fan of Servant – which he Produces and occasionally directs but did not create (key for me, I think), and I can always hold out hope another film on the level of Signs materializes eventually.

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