M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most contentious filmmakers of our time. Once a bonafide hit-maker with thrillers such as The Sixth Sense and Signs, his stock lowered when audiences failed to connect with his films Lady in the Water and The Happening, before The Last Airbender and After Earth placed him in proverbial “director’s jail”. Nonetheless, he bounced back with the surprise hit The Visit, followed by the even more successful Split. Much like the twists in his movies, Shyamalan zigged when you thought he would zag, turning in the wildly polarizing Glass and Old. Now, the seasoned director, at a time dubbed the modern master of suspense, returns with Knock at the Cabin. How does it fare?
Based on the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, Knock at the Cabin feels like a miracle. As someone who has championed Shyamalan’s recent work, his latest film is his chance to let his artistic eccentricities run wild. Between an engaging plot, thoroughly developed characters, and a directorial style evoking the panic of walls closing in, M. Night Shyamalan fires on all cylinders in a way not seen since his 2000’s Unbreakable.
[Warning: impressions and light spoilers from Knock at the Cabin are below!]
Knock at the Cabin’s suspenseful setup
The film follows a family visiting a remote cabin to escape from the noise of everyday life. What could possibly go wrong? Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldrige), and their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) are put in an unthinkable position when four intruders bust up their peaceful pastoral getaway. Led by the physically intimidating but soft-spoken Leonard (Dave Bautista), the family is forced to make an impossible choice: they must sacrifice one of their own in order to prevent the apocalypse.
It’s a bang-up premise for a film, just the kind of creepy hook audiences have come to expect with Shyamalan. Rarely, though, has his script been this tight. Shyamalan, along with co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, never loses sight of the psychological horror at the center of the film. As you’d expect, expectations are constantly played with as well. Audiences will be scratching their heads wondering: “are these guys for real?” and “if these guys are for real, how could I possibly make this decision?”.
The previously off-putting dialogue becomes a key strength of the film’s script, heightening the dread-filled atmosphere. You begin looking for clues, wondering what’s a red herring and what is the key to unlocking the mystery. There are no cheap tricks here; the mystery unspools slowly and naturally. The typical M. Night Shyamalan twists aren’t here, merely reveals, and the script knows just when to ratchet up the suspense. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, the film continually picks up traction until it can’t sustain it anymore.
At that point, the film concludes in a way that’s not only natural but utterly fitting. It’s been a while since a psychological film has had this strong a script. Knock at the Cabin, due to the nature of its premise, walks a fine line between being too vague or letting the audience in on too much. In short, it pulls off this trick wonderfully, in no small part due to its strong focus on characters.
Knock at the Cabin features an embarrassment of talent
It’s difficult to call out a specific scene stealer when everyone, and I do mean everyone, on the cast brings their A-game. Let’s start with the family. Jonathan Groff (Mindhunter) as Eric pulls off the loving family man exquisitely. You can see the gears turning in his head, his devotion to his family, and the possibility of saving humanity tearing him apart.
Ben Aldridge (Spoiler Alert) carries a heavy dramatic burden with Andrew. His first priority is his family, and he’ll do anything to protect them. Yet, his own jaded experiences with the world have him at constant odds with the intruders. Whenever the lines are blurred between what is and isn’t true, he begins to crack under pressure. Meanwhile, newcomer Kristen Cui is the sheer embodiment of good as Wen.
The intruders are an inspired cinematic creation. As stated before, the imposing Leonard, as played by Dave Bautista (Dune), is not what you’d expect from a home invader. His burly build masks a deeply held gentleness, rivaled only by his sense of purpose. Dave Bautista gives himself full over to M. Night Shyamalan’s world, proving once again he’s possibly the best actor turned wrestler yet.
Rupert Grint (Harry Potter franchise) gives a wonderfully gruff, against-type performance. Meanwhile, Nikki Amuka-Bird’s quietly nurturing Sabrina and Abby Quinn’s chipper, hopeful Adriane, add their own flavor to this motley crew. What binds them all is a deeply held aura of religious fervor. No matter how nice these folks can be, their mission and archaic weapons (called “tools” by Leonard) cause near-constant unease.
Bluntly, Knock at the Cabin wouldn’t work without the push-and-pull of the family and the intruders. For every reason given to trust the intruders, there’s something else that causes suspicion. Characters, like the plot, unveil themselves more as the journey goes on. Even the inter-family dynamics begin to shift. Without these performers, the feeling of being boxed in, watching this terrible decision take shape wouldn’t be near as memorable. It’s a true embarrassment of talent, that extends beyond in front of the camera.
M. Night Shyamalan: the modern master of suspense returns
Of course, one of the major stars of the show is M. Night Shyamalan himself. He’s more restrained than ever, employing his usual tricks as more of a means of getting into the heads of the character. The simple discomfort of a shot of the four intruders standing nervously together, the camera pushing in as they lay out the decision, is enough to send shivers down the spine. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (The Lighthouse) swivels their camera from side to side, heightening the aforementioned push-pull effect. He punctuates the most shocking actions with moves of the camera mounted on objects, not playing into the violence so much as suggesting it.
The discordant strings of the score by Herdís Stefánsdóttir add to an already sensory overload of a sound mix. The crack of thunder, the chirping of cicadas, etc. all suggest a ticking clock that makes this choice into something biblical.
Shyamalan takes this to the next level by including flashbacks, news reports, and other unconventional methods of building out the world of the story that make it clear just how serious this situation may or may not be. By keeping us in the immediate moment, also hinting at everything around this moment, the film had me glued to the edge of my seat from about 5 minutes in.
Final Thoughts on Knock at the Cabin
With Knock at the Cabin, M. Night Shyamalan has his first unqualified masterwork post-2010. With stellar direction, enthralling characters, and a story that grips you from its very premise, this is a film that will not soon be forgotten. It’s almost as if all his films from The Visit onwards have been experiments, leading him to develop the perfect formula for a suspenseful thriller. Judged by the audience’s hushed gasps, he once again has them in the palm of his hands.
Unfortunately, due to the simple nature of the story, some people will be turned off of the film immediately. That’s a shame because, while it’s relatively small-scale at a glance, that’s what makes it so impactful. The intimacy of the film taps into something very human, something Shyamalan has struggled with in the past and plays on a real fear that will be turning in my head for weeks to come.
In a current age dominated by very similar types of media, a sustained, very scary, original piece like Knock at the Cabin feels like a miracle. As someone who has supported M. Night Shyamalan‘s creative journey on principle, it’s vindicating to see all the pieces come together, finally. Like the tagline for the film says, make the choice and see Knock at the Cabin as soon as you can.
My rating for the film:
★★★★1/2 / ♥♥♥♥1/2
Knock at the Cabin releases only in theaters on February 3, 2023. For more about the film’s release visit the official website.
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