“A crisply made thriller that is quite sincere in its central questions, even if the way it eventually investigates them proves somewhat less potent.”
by Ken Bakely
M. Night Shyamalan is so earnest as a filmmaker that you can practically feel it in every frame. It’s what makes his work – even many of his otherwise poorly-regarded movies – so interesting. He is not kidding. His propensity for wild twist endings has made him one of the most famous directors in modern American movie culture, and it indicates a (sometimes bizarre) level of trust in his own stories and their ability to endure extreme recalibrations in how his audiences perceive them. His faith in his stories is extraordinary, and when the viewer is along for the ride, his skill as an artist is evident. His searching new film, Knock at the Cabin, begins with a different but no less significant level of trust that the audience will accept a huge proposition: it is about the literal apocalypse, in a tiny corner of the world with existential implications. Outside an idyllic cabin in the woods, a young girl named Wen (Kristen Cui) is approached by a man named Leonard (Dave Bautista), who brings with him three associates: Redmond (Rupert Grint), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird). Frightened by these strangers, Wen runs inside to her fathers, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). The intruders force themselves into the home and announce that the end of the world is nigh. They say they’ve had visions which told them that only the family that resides in this cabin can stop it, but it comes at a bleak price: one of them must be sacrificed, so that the rest of humanity may survive.
This is an obviously absurd order, and the family has no reason to believe them. But their captors are insistent, pointing to a series of shocking disasters unfolding in the news as evidence that the world will collapse if they do not act. From there, Knock at the Cabin – which Shyamalan co-wrote with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, adapting Paul G. Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World – focuses primarily on the interaction between the homeowners and the strangers, as Eric and Andrew consider the ramifications of what they’re being asked to do, against the more immediate question of what to make of this demand in the first place. However, it would be beside the point to wonder if Leonard and company are deluded or prophetic, because one of the most significant facts of the movie – and what makes it so frightening – is that it doesn’t matter. They demonstrate complete commitment to their beliefs as the film goes on, and cannot be convinced otherwise. The family is stuck in their abductors’ presence and, to some extent, in their heads. Contrary to the approach one might be expected to take to Shyamalan’s work, this is not a movie about making guesses.
Instead, the focus is on the characters’ beliefs; to borrow a phrase, it’s quite literally faith-based cinema. Not belief in a strictly religious sense, but that believing or not believing something is a choice all the same, and existing anywhere on that spectrum – as we all do, about so many things – is fundamental to the choices we make as we navigate a world so steeped in pain. Shyamalan deftly observes that if we take the abductors at face value, we accept they are strangers who are bound together by a supernatural conviction that this is their only, desperate chance to fend off an impending doomsday. A similar situation is inflicted upon Eric and Andrew, and this becomes a film about how people respond to the lurching anguish of helplessness in the face of suffering; the couple is faced with the helplessness of having to destroy a family they have worked so hard to build, fighting those who have worked to keep them from having it. (Indeed, Andrew wonders if Leonard may be connected to a homophobic attack in the couple’s past, though the intruders insist that they had no idea who lived in this cabin, only that they needed to get there.) Groff and Aldridge compellingly navigate Eric and Andrew’s psyches, as this annihilating threat has burst out of nowhere and destroyed their lives and their peace. And much has been said about Bautista’s performance as Leonard, for good reason: his work is intensely direct and personal, cloaked in pleading vulnerability and profound fear, all to people who will fight him at every word.
Those considerations are the core of Knock at the Cabin, and the foundations of the film’s strengths. Indeed, they are so self-evident that the rest of the movie can’t keep up. There are times when the structure can become somewhat mechanistic; there’s a tiring rhythm of escalations in the cabin and news events outside which extends the movie’s second act more than necessary. The stakes and rhythm of the story have been adequately established early on; as a whole, it’s quite straightforward, and doesn’t benefit from generally extraneous elaborations that seem too particular in providing neat resolutions to these parts of the story’s buildup (and by necessity, not the parts which are most relevant to the finale, making its interests somewhat lopsided). Shyamalan tells the viewer all of the necessary information with considerable economy, and this is not exactly a story that cries out for forensic details. It’s a crisply made thriller that is quite sincere in its central questions, even if the way it eventually investigates them proves somewhat less potent. Shyamalan remains a deeply fascinating filmmaker, even – or perhaps especially – in the realm of imperfection.
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