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Knock At The Cabin Review: Shyamalan Spin On The Apocalypse

EDITORS' RATING : 7.5 / 10
  • Tight, 100 minute runtime
  • Incredible performances, especially Batista's
  • Sharp staging, compositions and film craft
  • A strong concept that feels worn thin roughly halfway through
  • For a Shyamalan movie, the ending feels pretty tame and perfunctory

There's been some controversy over the way M. Night Shyamalan's newest thriller "Knock at the Cabin" has been marketed to audiences. The film is directed and co-written by Shyamalan himself, but there is no mention on posters or in trailers of its source material, Paul Tremblay's "Cabin at the End of the World." This exclusion is not a new phenomenon. Shyamalan's last film, "Old," was based on a French graphic novel, but the public-facing materials continued to brand the experience as the product of the auteur alone. Whether or not you find this practice to be false advertising or, at the very least, disrespectful to the original authors, one thing is undeniable: As with "Old," Shyamalan has once again taken source material specific to its original creator and transformed it into something that is so wholly and totally his own, for better and for worse. Luckily, he once again manages to err on the side of "better." 

The film follows a couple (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) vacationing at a cabin in the middle of nowhere with their daughter (Kristen Cui) until a group of intruders (led by Dave Bautista) arrives telling them they are going to be instrumental in helping to prevent the end of the world. The claim itself may or may not be dubious, but the danger inherent to their proposition is very real.

Unlike the book it is based upon, "Cabin" is much less concerned with ambiguity and the creation of a fantastical situation as a jumping-off point to leave the reader or viewer with a lot of hard questions to ask themselves. It is, instead a tense thriller characterized both by its profound emotional sincerity and its willingness to let the absurd function as necessary levity.

Like "Old" before it, there is a rather blunt and obvious surface metaphor that belies a deeper, more discomfiting exploration of post-Covid anxieties and concerns. It's a movie one might leave scoffing at, but later, they find themselves still pondering.

The four horsemen

"Cabin" opens in earnest with a discomfiting prologue reminiscent of a scene from the classic Universal "Frankenstein." Wen (Cui), a young girl catching grasshoppers in a jar in the woods meets Leonard (Bautista), a hulking mass of a man dressed neatly, with tiny, disarming glasses. Wen says she's not supposed to talk to strangers, so Leonard makes a great effort to introduce himself as a friend would. The two share basic facts about themselves. Wen is staying at this cabin with her two dads, Eric (Groff) and Andrew (Aldridge), while Leonard is here to do a job. Before he can explain what that job entails, three more strangers come out of the woods. Wen asks if those are his friends. Leonard clarifies that they're more like colleagues, and the razor-wire tension reaches its peak.

These four strangers — Leonard, Redmond (Rupert Grint), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Sabrina (Nikki Amukka-Bird) — come brandishing arcane-looking homemade weapons, insisting that this cabin-dwelling family must make a choice to prevent the apocalypse. They must choose to sacrifice a member of their brood or the entire world will be punished with a series of Biblically scaled plagues. For what should be obvious reasons, Eric and Andrew immediately assume they must be insane or members of a cult, or both. But despite their clear threatening presence, Leonard speaks with a careful and nervous sincerity that feels comedic at first, then more disquieting as the proceedings unfold.

Initially, the danger is straightforward. Four weapons-wielding intruders are here with some shared delusion about the end of the world and are holding a small family hostage trying to convince them to kill one of their own. But as the situation worsens inside the cabin, and each refusal to comply leads to more bloodshed, things get scarier outside the domicile's walls, too. Periodic intrusions from the news begin to give credence to Leonard's rhetoric, and the audience, along with Eric and Andrew must decide how delusional their foes really are.

To give this conflict even more weight, the story intermittently cuts to flashbacks of the couple's past at critical points in their relationship. Each interlude paints a deeper picture of the differences between the two men. Eric, we see, is quieter, more reserved, and more accepting of the ills this world aims in their collective direction. Andrew, conversely, works as a human rights attorney, has been the victim of a hate crime, and between his temper and pragmatism is probably the last person a loving God would ask to choose the fate of the rest of the world. Because whether or not Leonard and his friends are right, he doesn't have enough love for humanity to sacrifice either of the two people he loves the most to save it.

Unfortunately for him, the choice is either to give in and stem the carnage, whether real or imagined, or potentially doom his family to walk this burnt and decimated world alone. A character having to contemplate the limits of personal responsibility and what we owe to one another in a society where we must sacrifice for the greater good? Sure seems timely.

Strange times

Plenty of filmmakers are trying to find their way through to telling stories in a post-pandemic world, and most of them are doing so literally. Steven Soderbergh's "Kimi," John Hyams' "Sick," and Jay Roach's "Coastal Elites" all explore how various genres could function with Covid-19 as a backdrop. But Shyamalan is maybe the best mainstream filmmaker digging deep into the psychological ramifications of lockdown, of the polarization in the media, of how so many of us cannot shake the ever-present sense that we are closing to the end of the world as we know it to the beginning of anything better that could conceivably rise from its ashes.

When it comes to pure pulp, there's no one doing it better than Shyamalan when it comes to luxuriating in the well-worn trappings of the genre. Alongside Jarin Blaschke, the cinematographer behind Robert Eggers' "The Lighthouse" and "The Northman," Shyamalan makes a real meal out of the cabin setting. Through the use of old cameras and lenses that lend plenty of analog imperfections, smart staging, and strong compositions, "Cabin" looks and feels like a throwback in every sense. It sure helps that he's got one of the better casts he's assembled in his later years, with Bautista so perfectly suited to the complex part of Leonard, and Groff so endearing as a weakened man coming to grips with the sacrifice he must make. But visually, the film features his most impressive direction in years.

Now, the film is nowhere near as ambitious or mind-bending as "Old" was. In fact, if "Cabin" has a failing, it's that its conclusion feels so foregone and that it doesn't deviate much from the course its direction sets very early on. David Mamet once said a great ending should be both surprising and inevitable, and for a man who has made a career out of big twists, there's a little shock in the way "Cabin" concludes. On the surface, it may seem like cinematic kin to Shyamalan's "Signs," another film that utilized larger-than-life threats to tell a straightforward story about faith. But "Cabin" may not be as thematically straightforward as its story may suggest.

It would be easy to dismiss the film as being conservative in nature or religious propaganda, but that would require thinking literally in a way that would prove reductive to the picture at hand. While Shyamalan jettisons the ambiguity of the source material in favor of making quite plain whether or not Leonard and his cohorts are correct about the end of the world, him giving audiences a more definitive ending than the book doesn't mean he's not still putting the onus on the viewer to question themselves and their place in this world.

Shyamalan dramatizes the fears inherent to folks living inside their partisan bubbles, to modern society and the media's place within it pushing people apart. He highlights with shrewd clarity the power of belief, not necessarily in a higher power or the lack thereof, but in how objective truth pales in comparison to the immense intensity of emotionally feeling something to be true. But maybe most importantly, he reckons with the way individuality and isolationism have driven many of us from the idea of belonging to a larger community.

As we're pushed further and further into our ideological silos, it's easy to only care about those immediately near and dear to you, but our world is too interconnected to abandon any kind of fealty to one another. When Eric tells Andrew that maybe it's not about them specifically and that perhaps families have been making this choice throughout all of history, for the narrative at hand he is positing that the world has continued spinning because this same test has been put on others throughout time.

But the choice is never going to be so cosmically simple as to be a violent sacrifice of a loved one through lethal means. We make choices every day about how we live and how that impacts others. In a way, it's refreshing that someone of Shyamalan's stature and talent is still taking the time to think about those choices in his work, even when he's ostensibly making a fun thriller for the masses.

"Knock at the Cabin" hits theaters on Friday, February 3.