M. Night Shyamalan built a complex, fascinating, and sometimes frustrating Hollywood career based on two expectations. One is that he’ll derive a startling amount of narrative tension from a small budget. The other is he will deploy a twist that disrupts your perception of everything before the reveal. There are exceptions (one shudders at the memory of The Last Airbender), but you know what you’re getting into with one of his films.
Knock at the Cabin, at first blush, slots perfectly into Shyamalan’s oeuvre. Adapted from the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul G. Tremblay, the film follows a family – fathers Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) and their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) – on their rustic vacation in the woods that is violently upended by the arrival of a group of strangers. The group, led by Leonard (Dave Bautista), holds the family hostage and insists they make an unthinkable choice: willingly sacrifice one of them to avert the end of humanity. Of course, Andrew and Eric balk at the idea, leading Leonard’s group to demonstrate what their lack of choice means in brutally practical terms. The proof piling up and their circumstances growing more precarious by the minute, Eric and Andrew must balance their value against that of the world.
Knock at the Cabin is surprisingly straightforward for a premise that offers plenty of subversive opportunities. There are no narrative mind games here. Instead, Shyamalan sources tension from the uncomfortable questions he asks Wen’s family and the audience: how far would you go to save humankind? Is humanity even worth saving? The script dispenses with a preamble altogether to seek answers, offering only a moment of respite before Leonard’s hulking frame approaches. From there, the film dives into self-sacrifice, religious zeal and fanaticism, and perception versus reality.
They are all compelling themes, and viewing them through the prism of a queer family does offer a unique perspective. Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s script doesn’t bear their collective weight well. Stretches of dialogue can be stilted, repetitive, and remarkably shallow, given the severity of the circumstances. There are stabs at self-awareness that yield glimmers of levity, but their awkwardness can be distracting. The script also leaves important narrative threads, particularly those involving religion, adrift in unhelpful ambiguity. Even its most salient theme – the transformative, steadfast power of queer love – is nearly muddled by an ending it doesn’t entirely earn as it haphazardly ties everything together. (Its stark similarities and proximity to the third episode of the HBO series The Last of Us don’t help.) Ultimately, the film wobbles under its potential, managing to be overstuffed and underdeveloped at the same time.
The weaknesses of Shyamalan’s script don’t necessarily hobble the film. Knock at the Cabin succeeds as an exercise in claustrophobic atmosphere. Shyamalan dedicates his directorial energies to making the film thoughtfully tense without being inaccessible. Even though at the script’s expense, the film’s brisk pacing does keep the energy from flagging. The score by Herdís Stefánsdóttir also helps fill the space with deliberate unease. Shyamalan’s suffocating shot compositions are the film at its best. Not only do the overwhelming close-ups convey the characters’ psychological distress, but they also toy with the audiences’ preconceived notions. The way Leonard easily fills the frame with his broad musculature implies a threatening villain. His almost-meek demeanor complicates that reading and further increases the stakes.
Knock at the Cabin also owes success to its tight acting collective, which manages to exceed Shyamalan’s heavy demands of them. For Dave Bautista, the film is a triumph. He again challenges the boundaries of his charisma and imposing stature, surfacing notes of grace, fear, weakness, and ruthlessness. He crafts a performance that is disturbing, terrifying, and even moving. Bautista proves here that he has remarkable skill atop his palpable screen presence, and his potential is nearly limitless. Ben Aldridge is equally captivating on the opposite end of the narrative spectrum. He conveys Andrew’s fury, panic, and unwavering resolve with a tightly-coiled energy that threatens to explode at any moment. His performance bears the makings of an action star who can still deliver emotionally complex moments.
Knock at the Cabin is a lean, swift film, sometimes to its detriment. The film raises fascinating questions about faith, love, and family, even offering a thought-provoking answer. However, Shyamalan finds most of his insights on the surface and shortchanges his film’s intriguing premise. While Knock at the Cabin‘s lack of twist could be a meta-twist in its own right, the film might’ve benefitted from one of Shyamalan’s trademark curveballs.
In other words, it should’ve been a cult.