Review: With Clunky, Heavy-Handed Tension, Knock at the Cabin Is Another Miss from M. Night Shyamalan
Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) has been struggling a bit on the creative front of late. Although his 2015 film The Visit was a hoot, what he has done since (Split, Glass, Old) have all felt like rehashes either of his own works or of ideas as old as “The Twilight Zone” (for the record, Glass is just garbage). His latest work, Knock at the Cabin (based on the Paul Tremblay novel The Cabin at the End of the World) has an intriguing setup followed by a succession of moments that see the film fizzle out into nothingness.
Adapted by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, the film begins with a young girl named Wen (Kristen Cui) playing in the woods, where her parents—Jonathan Groff’s Eric and Ben Aldridge’s Andrew—are vacationing. The filmmaker makes it abundantly clear that this is a loving family; we even get scattered flashbacks to key moments in their history to illustrate how tightly bound these three are, from the moment they see young Wen at an orphanage to various moments in her dads’ relationship before her that brought them closer together, including some rougher patches, like a bar fight (possibly by a homophobic patron) or an uncomfortable introduction to Andrew’s parents. There are sweeter moments as well, but their relationship is strongest when it is being tested.
On vacation, they have rented a spacious but simple cabin, where they are visited by four strangers wielding tools/weapons who politely demand entry into their home, they say only to talk. Before that initial confrontation, we meet one of the four named Leonard (a confident but gentle Dave Bautista), who approaches Wen while she’s playing alone and attempts to make friends with her. She’s wary of him, but his background as an educator wins the day, until his three other companions show up, and they make their true intentions known.
After tying down Eric and Andrew (who, at first, assume this is a hate crime of some sort), Bautista and his seemingly unconnected fellow travelers—Nikki Amuka-Bird’s Sabrina, Abby Quinn’s Ardiane, and Rupert Grint’s temperamental Redmond—tell the family that the end of the world is coming and that unless the three of them kill one of their own, the world will effectively end, except for their family. The slow destruction of the earth will take place in stages, with each stage being kicked off by one of Bautista’s group being killed every few hours, kicking off a cataclysmic event or events somewhere on Earth. The only thing that can stop this process is one of the family members killing one of the other family members; it’s an impossible choice, one that Andrew (and likely some audience members) aren’t even sure is based in reality. They turn on the television at just the right moment to see massive tsunamis taking out entire coastlines or hundreds of planes falling out of the sky at the same time. Even if all of this is real, Andrew isn’t certain humanity deserves to keep living, because so much of it rejects their kind of family.
Bautista and his group can’t force the decision, but they can hold them in the cabin until the choice is made, making for some tense situations and escape attempts that lead to terrible consequences. The single-location story certainly has its moments of tension and despair, but in the end, the film (and the ultimate decision) lacks any kind of bite or impact. I realize that stories like this don’t need to have a deeper meaning, but Shyamalan makes is abundantly clear that there is one, even though he can’t quite land on it cleanly enough to make whatever point he’s trying to make. Bautista’s presence holds the film afloat most of the time. His physical presence feels like it should be threatening but nothing about his performance tells us he is, and that tension makes Leonard the most interesting character in Knock at the Cabin. In truth, all of the performances are strong; it’s the screenplay that lets them (and us) down. There are biblical implications that are largely ignored, despite it being clear that the gang of four are stand-ins for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The limited access to the outside world certainly sells the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere, but even that is somewhat undercut by the flashbacks, which allow us glimpses outside the confined space, and as a result, never let us feel fully trapped in the cabin. Without spoiling anything about the ending, it’s wholly unsatisfying and forces the film to simply end rather than conclude. Even for someone as wildly inconsistent as Shyamalan, Knock at the Cabin is a clunker, elevated only by great acting.
The film opens Friday in theaters.
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