M Night Shyamalan has always been at odds with his own legend. His 1999 breakout film, The Sixth Sense, revolved around a twist so sensational that it came to define him. Shyamalan is thought of now less as a director than a trickster; all that really matters to his audiences is how smoothly the rug is pulled out from under them. A relentless cycle of unmatchable hype builds and inevitable disappointment ensues.
With barely a twist to speak of (at least in the traditional sense), his latest film Knock at the Cabin feels like a repudiation of the past. It’s a (largely) single-location, narratively straightforward horror that unspools the tricky moral conundrum at its centre with inventive, Hitchcockian flair. Hopefully, Knock at the Cabin will serve as a reminder that Shyamalan should be celebrated as much for his craftsmanship as he is for his shock tactics.
The film is adapted from Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World. It follows a couple, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), who are holidaying with their young daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) at a charming cabin, which Shyamalan has relocated from New Hampshire to the outskirts of his home city of Philadelphia. The family fun is interrupted when they’re taken hostage by four armed strangers. Their leader, Leonard (Dave Bautista), explains that they must make an unconscionable sacrifice in order to avert the apocalypse.
These invaders don’t immediately read as fanatics. Redmond (Rupert Grint) may be a little on the aggressive side, but the rest – Leonard, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Adrianne (Abby Quinn) – are mournful and apologetic in their demands. And so, follows the tortuous dilemma of Knock at the Cabin: do Eric and Andrew trust the frankly unbelievable word of strangers? And is that trust worth the very end of their family?
Writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman’s initial adaptation of the novel found its way onto the Blacklist, a platform for Hollywood’s hottest unproduced screenplays, in 2019 before Shyamalan jumped on a redraft that drastically altered sections of Tremblay’s plot. It’s purer now, whittled down to its ideological bones. Although there’s nothing inherently spectacular about the cabin in question, Shyamalan’s camera careens through the space like the Angel of Death, vertiginous in its angles and unnervingly intimate. His lens crawls closer and closer toward Eric and Andrew’s faces as their horrifying new reality dawns on them.
Knock at the Cabin is a chamber piece about love and belief. It explores how the human brain is driven by a compulsive need to find patterns and craft narrative out of chaos. Eric and Andrew have faced homophobia in every corner of their lives, and one of the many uncertainties of Knock at the Cabin is whether the couple are right to question their captors’ motives. Leonard and his crew aren’t so secure in their mission, either. Their belief in the impending apocalypse comes repeatedly under question, too.
As protective father Ben, Aldridge explores love in its most desperate form while Groff’s Eric possesses an almost beatific sense of emotional clarity. Bautista, best known as a Marvel star, recently expressed an interest in moving into more “dramatic” fare. With Knock at the Cabin, he has seemingly already fulfilled his wish. The role of Leonard is perfectly suited to the wrestler turned actor. As a fundamentally sympathetic antagonist, Bautista digs deeper into the timid sincerity and striking naivete already present in his Guardians of the Galaxy role. In this way, you can see him as a kindred spirit to Shyamalan. Released from the burden of expectation, both actor and director find their power. As a result, Knock at the Cabin does, too.
Dir: M Night Shyamalan. Starring: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint. 15, 110 minutes.
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