KNOCK AT THE CABIN
2023, R, 100 mins.
Jonathan Groff as Eric / Ben Aldridge as Andrew / Kristen Cui as Wen / Dave Bautista as Leonard / Rupert Grint as Redmond / Nikki Amuka-Bird as Sabrina / Abby Quinn as Adriane
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan / Written by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, based in the novel by Paul Tremblay
I'm going to say
something right from the get-go about KNOCK AT THE CABIN that I have not
said about a M. Night Shyamalan film in over twenty years...
Wait for for...
KNOCK AT THE CABIN is the first film from the director in a long, long, long time that has modestly evoked the finer elements of his career defining efforts of the late 90s and early 2000s.
This represents a
decent return to form for Shyamalan.
Now, you're going
to have to take that with a grain of salt, folks.
I know...I know...I have not been - shall we say - Shyamalan's biggest supporter over the years of being a critic, but when his Oscar nominated THE SIXTH SENSE opened and he followed up that magnificent horror thriller with UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS respectively in 2000 and 2002 I definitely drank the he's the next Spielberg/Hitchcock Kool-Aid.
Actually, I guzzled it down in one shot.
Then came the qualitative freefall of THE VILLAGE...and then LADY IN WATER...and then spectacularly awful disasters like THE HAPPENING and THE LAST AIRBENDER and my sugar high for Shyamalan was essentially over. Some have stated that he had a decent career resurgence with SPLIT and GLASS to frame off his UNBREAKABLE trilogy, but I didn't take any sip of the Shyamalan Kool-Aid again with their releases.
One thing I kept asking myself with every new review of his films was simple: How many more chances do I give this guy? Was he a one trick (or three film) pony as far as directors go? Is he done like dinner?
Then came 2021's OLD,
which was so staggeringly inept on multiple fronts that I essentially felt
like...yup...it's over for him and there's no coming back. That was
the first film I saw in a cinema when they re-opened after COVID lockdown,
and it was so terrible that it made me want to rush back home to put
myself back in isolation again.
Now we have KNOCK
AT THE CABIN (not to be confused with CABIN
IN THE WOODS) and I can say - without sarcasm - that this is a
substantially better thriller than I was expecting going into it.
There's the whole diminishing expectations aspect with
Shyamalan's films over the last two decades, and considering how many low
star ratings that I've given out to his films since becoming a critic back
in 2004 it became hard for me to get stoked for anything new from him.
However, even the deeply jaded cynic in myself has to concede that
KNOCK AT THE CABIN has a good premise (as far as end of the world genre
pictures go), some thanklessly decent performances, and shows Shyamalan as
- once again - a poised visualist that manages to give his latest a rich
stylistic integrity while milking scenes for some genuinely tension-filled
pathos. Some have labeled
this as "upper tier Shyamalan" (come on, now...really?), but I
can't deny that this film just works...and works well as a
TWILIGHT ZONE-esque nerve jangler.
That, and KNOCK
AT THE CABIN deserves some serious props when it comes to inclusiveness
for its characters and storytelling choices.
The narrative focuses on a gay married couple, who are thankfully
not just one-note props here served up for the horror show to come.
They're well realized characters and are presented as normally as a
same sex couple, not to mention that their union figures heavily into the
conflicts to come. Andrew
(Ben Aldridge) and his husband, Eric (Jonathan Groff), have a young
adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui, who just might give the best child
performance in a Shyamalan film since arguably THE SIXTH SENSE), and
they're off for some much needed R & R time at their secluded lakeside
cabin. Any semblance of
vacation bliss is destroyed rather quickly with the appearance of four
strangers - Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Ardiane (Anny
Quinn) and Redmond (Rupert Grint) - that arrive at their doorstep and
demand to be let in (not helping matters is that they're wielding what
appears to be makeshift medieval styled weapons.
It should also be noted that Leonard has a mostly peaceful first
meeting with Wren in the nearby woods beforehand, during which time he
quietly and politely introduces himself and professes a similar
appreciation for grasshopper collecting.
Flash forward a few minutes later and he's appearing with his
cohorts at the family cabin and threatens to break in if Andrew and Eric
don't let them in.
they break in.
apprehending and tying up the couple, Leonard unveils why they're actually
there: Giving out a doomsday rationale, he matter-of-factly tells his
prisoners that the actual Apocalypse is coming soon and can only be
stopped if one family member is willing to kill off one of their own,
which will avert the end of days. Rather
predictably, Andrew and Eric refuse, citing this brute as someone that's
mentally disturbed and is probably attacking them because of their
insists that these men are not being targeted for any religious reason or
because of their orientation and pleads with them to accept the dire
Biblical prophesy of scorched earth, pestilence, and overall carnage to
come if they choose to do nothing. The
bound men still refuse, which causes Leonard to sacrifice one of this own
squad, and with each sacrifice of them comes one of the aforementioned
apocalyptic signs. Andrew and
Eric are shocked by this ghastly murder in front of their eyes, but when
Leonard turns on the TV and shows a news report of massive tsunamis
destroying countries this triggers them even further. Is Leonard and his goon squad for real? Is this just a stunning coincidence? He begs his captives to kill one of themselves to end
this, but they refuse again...and again Leonard serves up one of
his own to sacrifice...and again he turns on the TV, this time with
a report of a deadly pandemic starting to ravage its way through the
KNOCK AT THE CABIN, as alluded to, has one humdinger of a premise and most of the nail-biting thrills derived here is in whether or not Leonard and his companions are just homophobic religious freaks planning a targeted assault on this family or there're actual messengers of God's wraith with a plan of curtailing it. The unnerving push-pull effect to the underlining story is quite well maintained throughout, especially for how Leonard appears - for all intents and purposes - as a kindly giant with (his claim) of peaceful apocalypse-ending motives. His fellow invaders try to maintain order in the early stages, but the couple is still rightfully shocked and bewildered by it all. And when one member of Leonard's team is ritualistically killed after another and a new apocalyptic scenario plays out on TV we're left wondering - alongside Andrew and Eric - if Leonard is not a lunatic at all. Andrew still calls BS and accuses his captors repeatedly of maliciously harassment because they're gay, but Eric, on the other hand, states that he had a vision of a figure in light when one of Leonard's colleagues was brutally sacrificed. Andrew pleads with his husband and reminds him that he has suffered from a massive concussion during the cabin takeover and is seeing things that are not there...
...but is he?
I don't want to
say much more about what happens next in KNOCK AT THE CABIN, other than to
say that the script (co-written by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman with
Shyamalan, based on the 2019 Paul Tremblay novel) ratchets up this
chilling standoff in an effective slow-burn manner while sprinkling in
little flashback vignettes about the couple's past that deals with their
unique struggles as a gay couple (and later parents) in a bigoted world.
One of the more distressing angles present in the unfolding and
increasingly alarming plot is how this once ultra tight relationship
steeped in commitment and love for one another is gradually dissolving
when one of them starts to potentially buy into Leonard's mission, which
drives an obvious and problematic wedge between them.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN is on solid ground when it tackles issues of
faith, religious fervor, and societal inclusiveness (or lack thereof)
during what just might be the end of the world.
Andrew is unwavering in his belief that Leonard and his friends are
just petty Bible-thumping marauders that represent yet another example of
hateful intolerance towards the gay community.
But as the story progresses and more apocalyptic scenarios start to
play out in real time because Andrew and Eric fail to act upon Leonard's
request...we're left wondering ourselves just what in the hell is going
on. Are these home invaders
manipulative homophobes or is the end really coming?
I'm relieved that Andrew and Eric's partnership is handled with
care and tact, which is assisted by the fully credible performances by
Aldridge and Groff, who are able to allow for our emotional buy-in for
these characters and understanding of their love for one another, which
makes it all the harder later when one of them might be coming to
Leonard's defense. Both
actors are stellar at portraying their characters battling with each other
and those around them when dealing with an unspeakably horrific moral
Also fantastic is
Bautista, who despite his Hulk-sized facade gives a very understated and
disarming performance that rarely hints that this guy is a raging maniac.
There's an undeniable gentleness to this brooding giant of a man
despite his doomsday proclamations. There's
a tough balancing act that Bautista has to maintain here to evoke a man of
sincerity and alarm at the same time, but he pulls it off commendably
well. As far as wrestlers
turned actors go, I've always admired Bautista more than, say, Dwayne
Johnson, mostly because the latter seems more concerned with image control
than taking risky parts, something that the former isn't concerned with at
all. Considering the tall
order that this film places on us in terms of end of days thrillers go,
Bautista should be respected (along with the rest of the cast) for
dramatically grounding the proceedings as madness unfolds around them,
something that I haven't been able to say about most Shyamalan films of
the last 20 years.
And as for
Shyamalan himself? He acclimates himself well with this minimalist
setting and does a lot to sell this apocalyptic dilemma through aesthetic
choices. KNOCK AT THE CABIN
was shot on lush 35mm film stock by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and
Lowell A. Miller and alongside Shyamalan they all find continually novel
ways to frame the standoff between this family and the invaders in the
most striking manner possible. There's
something refreshingly self-contained and economically executed about
Shyamalan's approach here, especially coming off of OLD, which also
largely took place in one setting, but was a creative failure on all
counts. The problem with that
film was its imbecilic scripting, laughable Ed Wood-ian dialogue and
embarrassing performances (damning traits that, to be fair, littered many
of the director's post-SIGNS films), but those sins don't affect KNOCK AT
THE CABIN at all (which is assisted by the fact that Shyamalan has
enlisted some screenwriters to work alongside him).
Much of this film made me think of THE HAPPENING, which also
sported an end of days premise. I mercilessly laughed at that film because of how feebly
wrongheaded was in so many dizzying respects.
really at all. I found myself buying into it. That's
But, having said that, I have to be honest in saying that Shyamalan has made a good film. Finally. A pretty solid one, actually, and one that's atmospheric, intense, superbly acted, and builds suspense rather well while maximizing its limited and claustrophobic setting. Is this the second coming of Shyamalan and a home run for him after striking out so many times before? Sort of. Think of it more of a two base hit.
I'll end this review by confessing that I ended up taking a sip of the Shyamalan Kool-Aid again...and it was nice.