movie review

Knock at the Cabin Is M. Night Shyamalan’s Best Film Since The Village

Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, and Jonathan Groff in Knock at the Cabin.
Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, and Jonathan Groff in Knock at the Cabin. Photo: Universal Pictures

An enormous hulk of a man offering a flower to a young girl in the woods. It recalls one of the most enduring and chilling images in all of horror, from James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). That’s just one reason why we sense such dread in the opening scene of M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin, as Dave Bautista’s Leonard murmurs to 7-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui), “I’m not from around here, but I’m looking to make some new friends. Can I talk to you?” Shyamalan makes sure to shoot Bautista from all the right angles, for maximum hugeness. And the actor plays it perfectly, his voice gentle, his eyes troubled, candor and reticence clashing beneath those unreal shoulders. We have no idea where this is going, even as we realize it can’t go anywhere good.

If you’ve seen the trailers for Knock at the Cabin, you probably already know that Leonard and a trio of strangers will soon present Wen and her parents, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), with an impossible choice: They must willingly sacrifice one member of their family in order to avert the apocalypse. Not an apocalypse but the apocalypse. “First, the cities will drown,” Leonard intones. “The oceans will rise up … A terrible plague will descend … The skies will fall and crash to the earth like pieces of glass.” Is he for real, or have our heroes been waylaid by a quartet of psychos? Again, Bautista’s performance stirs the uncertainty: The quaver in Leonard’s voice tells us that he believes what he’s saying but that he can’t believe that he’s saying what he’s saying — which in turn helps us believe what he’s saying.

Among the qualities that make Shyamalan such an effective director of thrillers is his fluency in the many languages of genre. The film smoothly moves from the textures of one type of chiller to another, even as the mood remains eerily consistent. That Frankenstein opening soon gives way to a home-invasion picture. Then, as Leonard’s cohorts try to convince Eric and Andrew of the reality of their cause, they speak about their families and their jobs and all they’ve given up to come out here to talk to these good people, and we recognize the fervency: It’s what we hear from deranged cult followers in movies. Finally, when we do catch glimpses of the chaos that Leonard foretells, we may realize that we’ve been inside a disaster flick all along.

In his best work, Shyamalan has also infused such genre theatrics with a decidedly earnest (and audience-friendly) form of humanity. It’s what defined his early films and his early success. But he seemed to wean himself off this tendency in later hits such as The Visit (2015) and Split (2016), which were a lot more ruthless and severe than pictures like The Village (2004), Signs (2002), and Unbreakable (2000). (That might have been because the director’s most emotionally naked film, 2006’s Lady in the Water, almost brought his career crashing down around him.) In Knock at the Cabin, that sincerity comes roaring back, not just in its flashbacks to Eric and Andrew’s early years and their adoption of Wen, but also in the snatches of information we get about the home invaders themselves. Leonard is an elementary-school teacher and bartender; Adriane (Abby Quinn) is a chef and a single mother; Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a post-op nurse; Redmond (Rupert Grint, unrecognizable) is a shithead from Boston. Such moments make these people sadder, but also more dangerous; we learn just enough to start wondering about their lives, and a real person onscreen is always more menacing than a one-dimensional monster.

Knock at the Cabin is based on Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, and the script follows the book pretty closely for the first two-thirds, before delivering a dramatically different final act. There are deeper, spiritual differences between the two as well. Both are works of the apocalyptic imagination, but Tremblay’s tale is more insular, working the ambiguity of the situation to explore the characters’ faith and emotional perseverance; he keeps us mostly (and purposefully) in the dark about whether the terrible things Leonard is prophesying are in fact coming to pass. Shyamalan, however, understands that there is usually little ambiguity around such horrors in cinema, at least in today’s cinema. For him, uncertainty is merely a grace note to help build suspense (and to give the characters dimension), but there’s little doubt as to what’s going on. In 2023, when someone in a movie says the world is ending, it usually is.

That might be because of the way we make movies nowadays, but it might also be because of the way we think nowadays. Look at the TV and read the news; it seems like our world is always ending, and we are always helpless to change it. Earthquakes and tsunamis; pandemics run amok; planes falling from the sky. These ideas are all in Tremblay’s novel, but Shyamalan runs with the imagery, activating our sense memory of the horrors we’ve already lived through in the 21st century, as well as what we imagine will be the horrors to come. (And, depending on who we are, the horrors we imagine, or at least their causes, might be radically different.)

Grief often lies at the heart of Shyamalan’s work. Usually, that grief is in the past — traumatic losses, lives left unlived, bodies left broken. This time, however, it seems to lie in the future. In that opening scene, Leonard looks at the slight dent on Wen’s mouth where she once had a cleft lip. “I don’t have a scar like you, but if you look inside, you’ll see that my heart is broken,” he says. He’s talking specifically about the grisly deed he’s about to undertake. But in the grim quiet of the forest, Shyamalan and Bautista let the man’s sadness linger and expand. In his mournful silence, his heart breaks for the whole world.

At the same time, Knock at the Cabin reverses that aforementioned helplessness. What if, it asks, you could change things with just one act? Indeed, it makes a fine analog — and even maybe a counterpoint — to the common superhero movie, in which beings of great power come together over and over again to save the Earth. Here, a group of ordinary people come together to do the same, but, in a rather biblical twist, they can only do so in the most awful, gruesome, terrifying way. The result is the most exhilarating and wounding film M. Night Shyamalan has made in many, many years.

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Knock at the Cabin Is Shyamalan’s Best Since The Village