Knock At The Cabin (2023)
Directed by: M Night Shyamalan
Written by: M Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond; Michael Sherman
Starring: Abby Quinn, Ben Aldridge, Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Kristen Cui, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint
KNOCK AT THE CABIN
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Love him or hate him, M Night Shyamalan is never boring. His movies aren’t average, tending to fall into neat little thrillers or glorious failures: why he’s had so many returns to form. On his best days, he’s a fine craftsman with an exemplary understanding of narrative and pace. And with the right project, he can make something smart and unpredictable, creating suspense and mystery with the best of them. Whereas at his worst, particularly Glass and The Happening, he’s didactic, cheesy, and self-serious to the point of unintentional hilarity. Still, there are usually interesting ideas to his duds, and, importantly, he’s always distinctly himself: an imperfect auteur who bounces between bonkers and brilliant. So going into Knock At The Cabin, I wasn’t expecting much beyond being entertained for 90 minutes.
Like his strongest work, it’s a small-scale thriller that’s (potentially) supernatural. We open with a young girl, Wen (Cui), catching grasshoppers in the woods. She’s there vacationing with her two dads, Andrew (Aldridge) and Eric (Groff), in the titular cabin. Unexpectedly she’s joined by Leonard (Bautista) and his ‘associates’: supposedly four visionaries trying to avert the apocalypse. After an exceptional two-way scene, in which he reluctantly warns her of things to come, her family is taken hostage and told to make an unthinkable choice. Between the three of them, they must pick one to sacrifice, or else the whole world will burn. Are their captors mentally ill? Can they really ward off the rapture? Or is it all part of a scheme to make them hurt each other? And even if it is real, could they really go ahead with it? A tense standoff ensues as Andrew, Eric, and Wen decide what to believe.
It’s an excellent premise, adapted from Paul G Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World. Shyamalan does an admirable job exploring the situation’s ambiguity, presenting evidence on both sides. Just as it looks like we’re going heavily in one direction, with it all being a scam, he balances it out with another reason it may not be. The simple plot and mostly singular location, save for some flashbacks peppered throughout, push him toward emphasising the character dynamics. At times, their motivations fall apart (I’m thinking of a frankly awful decision that seems there to make the movie ten minutes longer), and the believer vs. skeptic angle has been done to death. The second narrative, in which we see Andrew and Eric become dads, is also too brief to add much. Still, in a back catalogue of films defined more by their cool ideas than human drama, this is among the filmmaker’s most poignant efforts.
Knock At The Cabin may be less thematically weighty than previous M Night outings, with a less overt message or point. I think it’s all the better for this: he’s always made a better simple storyteller than a guru. As usual, he’s an excellent visualist. Like his last comeback flick, Old, he employs fast cuts and askew framing to discombobulate his audience, leaving the truth somewhere just outside the shot. There are some excellent set pieces too. The opening ten minutes make for a scrappy, scary home invasion, and the moments we leave the cabin to see the world in disarray (or is it?) are harrowingly real. He establishes the cabin’s simple geography well, too, making our time in it immersive and giving the possible escapes an extra layer of tension. Crucially, he also knows exactly when to cut away from the violent scene, leaving it to the imagination. Like Leonard, we’re not meant to want to see anyone get hurt. After all, if we believe him, there are no goodies or baddies – just victims of truly terrible circumstances.
It helps that the cast is so good. With the possible exception of Rupert Grint, who is on point with his physicality, if not his accent, all get their moments to shine. However, Dave Bautista is the clear standout. After years of mostly comedy, something he has voiced his frustration about, his dramatic turn was a revelation to me. We don’t know whether we believe Leonard’s prophecies on not – indeed, we have ample reason to be suspicious. But the important part is he does and hates it. Bautista plays him as a tragic figure who would love to carry on with life, were he not literally carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. The way he goes from an imposing giant to a warm, sorrowful friend shows an excellent range and leaves Drax a distant memory.
Being both a Shyamalan film and a mystery, much of the film’s success comes down to its third act. And while I’m not going to give specifics (there’s a circle in Hell for reviewers who drop spoilers in the name of discussing themes), this one worked for me. There isn’t any mind-blowing twist, ala The Sixth Sense, or any change in tone, like Signs – but a good, decisive ending to the story. Baked into the premise, you’d reasonably expect it to go one of two ways: either the group’s visions are bs, or they aren’t. Yet Shyamalan finds a perfect way to round it off with the maximum emotional impact – going against the source material for something more his own. As the ante gets upped and the prophecies even worse, it’s a testament to him and his team that he doesn’t lose sight of the family at his film’s centre.
Decades into a career, most genre directors are lucky to get new a new movie labelled their best one since their last good one. But for M Night, by now, he’s had such erratic ups and downs that he defies this sort of simple mid-career summary. Of course, I expect he wouldn’t have it any other way either, and like Rian Johnson I wouldn’t be surprised if he is naturally drawn towards bold material he knows will piss half his viewers off. As such, he remains an often-frustrating but highly skilled filmmaker who does nothing by half – hence why he’s had so many movies getting called his ‘return to form.’ Still, for my money, this is the real deal: his best since Unbreakable. Something I say as a fan of The Village, The Visit, Split, and Old. So even if you’ve been let done in the past, badly, I urge you to open the door to him.