Knock at the Cabin
Anchored by Dave Bautista's best performance yet, M Night Shyamalan's latest gets creepy and mostly compelling in the woods.
February 02, 2023
Does M Night Shyamalan hate holidays? The twist-loving writer/director's Knock at the Cabin comes hot on the heels of 2021's Old, swapping beach nightmares for woodland terrors. He isn't the only source of on-screen chaos in vacation locations — see also: Triangle of Sadness' Ruben Östlund, plus oh-so-many past horror movies, and TV's The White Lotus and The Resort as well — but making two flicks in a row with that setup is a pattern. For decades since The Sixth Sense made him the Oscar-nominated king of high-concept premises with shock reveals, Shyamalan explored the idea that everything isn't what it seems in our daily lives. Lately, however, he's been finding insidiousness lingering beyond the regular routine, in picturesque spots, when nothing but relaxation is meant to flow. A holiday can't fix all or any ills, he keeps asserting, including in this engaging adaptation of Paul Tremblay's 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World.
For Eric (Jonathan Groff, The Matrix Resurrections), Andrew (Ben Aldridge, Pennyworth) and their seven-year-old daughter Wen (debutant Kristen Cui), a getaway isn't meant to solve much but a yearning for family time in the forest — and thinking about anyone but themselves while Eric and Andrew don robes, and Wen catches pet grasshoppers, isn't on their agenda. Alas, their rural Pennsylvanian idyll shatters swiftly when the soft-spoken but brawny Leonard (Dave Bautista, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery) emerges from the trees. He says he wants to be Wen's friend, but he also advises that he's on an important mission. He notes that his task involves the friendly girl and her dads, giving them a hard choice yet also no choice at all. The schoolteacher has colleagues, too: agitated ex-con Redmond (Rupert Grint, Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities), patient nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Avenue 5) and nurturing cook Adriane (Abby Quinn, I'm Thinking of Ending Things), all brandishing weapons fashioned from garden tools.
When a Shyamalan movie slips into holiday mode, it's more concerned with unpacking revelations than teasing them out Unbreakable-, Signs-, The Village- and The Happening-style. Accordingly, like Old, Knock at the Cabin drops its crucial surprise early. Leonard and company have come a-knocking because they Eric, Andrew and Wen must stave off exactly what Tremblay's book's title promises: the end of the world. All four strangers have experienced unsettling visions leading them to this well-appointed hut, where this very family just happens to be escaping the city, to get its occupants to make a difficult choice. If Wen and her fathers sacrifice one of their number willingly, the apocalypse won't eventuate. If they refuse, first the sea will rise, then a plague will spread, then the sky will fall — then humanity will burn except this chosen three, who'll be forced to watch.
What would you do? Shyamalan, taking on a Black List script initially drafted by first-timers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, demands that Knock at the Cabin's viewers ask themselves that question. In fact, that query springs several times as the film morphs through multiple horror and thriller situations. What would you do if a gentle giant appeared at your door? If armed attackers stormed your house? If conspiracy-spouting fanatics ordered your allegiance? Yes, Knock at the Cabin is soaked in stranger danger, works as a home-invasion flick and ponders cults. What would you do, too, if you could halt the planet's destruction but at significant cost to yourself? Yes, Knock at the Cabin poses a loaded proposition in these climate change-ravaged and pandemic-afflicted times. Of course, while Tremblay's text predates COVID-19, the movie it inspires needn't ask what'd happen if the earth was crumbling or a disease was decimating swathes of people — we already know.
Knowledge is one of Shyamalan's key tools; he's well-aware of the genre boxes he's ticking, and that his audience will spot what he's doing. Leonard's arrival nods to one of the best horror films ever made, after all, and one of the most heartbreaking scenes committed to celluloid — because when there's a towering figure, a flower and a child, James Whale's Frankenstein comes to mind. Knowledge is the source of tension, actually, given that Knock at the Cabin's opening scene and much that follows have played out on screens before. Three things help keep eyes fixed ahead, pulses racing and unease simmering: waiting to see what the kind but quickly concussed Eric, suspicious and homophobia-suspecting Andrew, and sweet and resourceful Wen will indeed do with this prophesy of impending doom; discovering how true, or not, Leonard and company's claims are; and learning if Shyamalan will toy with, twist and subvert everything viewers know has happened in similar fare, or if and where he won't.
Knock at the Cabin's creative force gets playful via his lead alone, instantly lacing his movie with unease and uncertainty through Bautista's presence. The heft that's made the wrestler-turned-actor famous, including as Guardians of the Galaxy's Drax the Destroyer, is impossible to avoid — but so is Leonard's polite demeanour, bookish glasses and button-up shirt, each befitting his pre-apocalypse job. Cinematographers Jarin Blaschke (The Northman) and Lowell A Meyer (Servant) repeatedly emphasise Bautista's size, with the film's array of angles frequently framing its literal biggest player to appear as threatening as possible. The actor's portrayal is controlled and restrained, however, which makes for an unnerving contrast. In his most compelling and complex performance yet, Bautista is hypnotic — imposing, ardent, earnest and tender as well — as a man zealously committed yet also visibly pained over what he's doing.
Shyamalan certainly doesn't have a casting problem here — Grint keeps flourishing in his projects, as seen in Servant; Groff, Aldridge and Cui make a charming family, even in such tough circumstances; and Amuka-Bird and Quinn invest their characters with heart and sincerity — or any issues sparking interest. He's at the top of his craft, too, with Knock at the Cabin's mix of roving and close-up visuals claustrophobic, disquieting, nimble and handsomely staged all at once. And, while the movie's first two thirds exceed its final act, he's made a mostly single-location affair with as straightforward a plot as he's worked with that's largely gripping. While its questions about what we choose to put our faith in and why are as obvious as one late easy reveal, Knock at the Cabin earns two firm beliefs: in Shyamalan messing with vacations again, and in Bautista at his best.
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