I’m here for the resurgence of M. Night Shyamalan. With his release of The Visit in 2015 he teased a comeback, but the knockouts of Split, Glass, and Old vaulted this weird, Rod Serling-inspired filmmaker back into the day-to-day discussion. His latest, an adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s “The Cabin at the End of the World,” is a form of evolution for the filmmaker that I fully believe is a sign of even better things to come.
The Unbreakable director has brought a lot of his traditional tricks to the table – long pan shots for setting a scene, slow zooms into an actor’s face as they receive an insane monologue, and quick, short bursts of mostly offscreen violence that remain as unsettling as anything he’s ever done. What’s new is his sense of inevitable dread, his long journey into that foregone conclusion that is as untwisty as he could possibly be. While it feels like a moment ripe for disappointed audiences to shred I have to wonder…if it was anyone but Shyamalan would it receive that kind of scrutiny?
Knock at the Cabin begins as any film like this should. Young Wen (newcomer Kristin Cui) is catching grasshoppers in the woods outside of the remote vacation getaway spot while her dads, Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff), sit on the back deck having a very cute little picnic. Wen names her grasshoppers and is keeping a journal of them to learn from, carefully measuring each and observing their behavior to glean new information. She’s like her dad, Eric, in that regard, as the observation of behavior is deemed the most important way to learn. A hulking figure in the woods sets her on edge, but the gentle giant quickly introduces himself as Leonard (Blade Runner 2049‘s Dave Bautista, an already wonderful actor that gets a 10% boost every time you put him in glasses) and assists her in her bug-catching. What startles her is the appearance of others, all carrying massive weapons of a homemade-medieval variety, and what follows is a home-invasion thriller to set anyone on edge.
Leonard and his companions Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint) are all there to stop a supposed apocalypse. They tie the family up and inform them that they must choose from amongst themselves and make a blood sacrifice. No suicides are allowed and these four doomsday prophets, complete with supposed visions and rituals, are not allowed to make the kill for them.
Tremblay’s novel is much more bleak and unsettled than Shyamalan’s flick but I think the entertainment factor is a key component in what makes the adaptation successful. Groff and Aldridge have a comfortable familiarity that helps to sell their queer romance despite the film’s lack of interest in letting them be truly romantic (an ongoing problem with major Hollywood films, which are fine telling us that there is a queer romance but afraid to let us see one) and Cui is admirably charming as the clever child they have adopted but it’s Dave Bautista that steals the show. Leonard is a sports coach for kids, one that admits the teams he works with are bad but bring him joy regardless, and his energy as a giant sweetie is the lynchpin in a film that might otherwise fall apart. Shyamalan is swinging for the fences here and that doesn’t always work for him, particularly when he tries to utilize dialogue to create a character, but bringing Dave Bautista on board is the smartest choice he could have made. Small moments where he has a quiver in his voice, where his discomfort is genuine, and even where he quietly sweeps up broken glass as an act of apology all build up to one of the most subtle parts of a very blunt and awkward film.
While later Shyamalan films have been indulgent in length there’s a briskness to Knock at the Cabin that lends it a more classical feeling. It’s economic, like many of the director’s works, but while the camera work of Jarin Blaschke is cinematic in movement and innovation the film itself is highly contained. Its one-location story is interspersed with small flashbacks of the couple growing over the years, enduring scorn from conservative parents and hate crimes in public alongside sweet moments with the whole family, but it never feels insignificant.
It’s such a shame that some of the film feels like an odd, pseudo-religious attack on queer families. The film spends a lot of time telling the audience that most of its characters have no ill will against Eric, Andrew, and Wen because of their family structure before proceeding to assault a queer couple due to religious visions and message board discussions. Shyamalan is able to mostly overcome this but his obsession with religion and utilizing characters as religious figures makes for an odd mesh when it comes to telling a “progressive” story (depressing that the mere portrayal of a gay couple onscreen is still seen as a step forward) that doesn’t always gel. Still, the antithetical nature of the script doesn’t derail the entirety of the film and it manages to mostly carry out what it tries to achieve.
There’s so much to unpack with Knock at the Cabin and it’s definitely worth the watch. Even in the face of some questionable thematic choices, I stand firm in my excitement for this new era of Shyamalan, one that involves families and their children being placed into harrowing situations so the director can work his own fears for his adult children out of his system. It’s not a triumph but it’s a grand time with someone I’m happy to see back in the saddle, making his weird little movies with little-to-no compromises.
Knock at the Cabin is currently in theatres.