Let’s face it, M. Night Shyamalan was once a revered genius. His sense of humanity and horror launched him into our lives with The Sixth Sense (1999) and its follow-up Unbreakable (2000). He was once an unstoppable, creative box-office draw, and the use of the word ‘was’ is important here. Perhaps he has become self-indulgent, after 2004’s moderately creepy The Village, came a string of disappointments: Lady In The Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth, but all was not completely lost.
He came back strong with 2016’s Split, and we witnessed a return of the ‘twist’ and his jagged way of storytelling. Though its follow-up, Glass, did mildly okay, his last feature, Old, proved an interesting idea let down by some bad acting and a slightly confusing narrative. And so we get to this Knock At The Cabin. For context, his latest movie is inspired by the novel The Cabin at the End of the World, by American author Paul G. Tremblay. A work of brilliance that even Stephen King called “thought-provoking and terrifying”, so you would expect M. Night Shyamalan has a perfect foundation to build upon, but he drops the ball yet again.
It is not a case of Knock At The Cabin being a very bad movie, it is just not a classic Shyamalan feature. The acting is very good, and the isolated setting also works, but it strays into the past at places which breaks the building tension, and so Knock At The Cabin has to work to get that tension back. Furthermore, if you have seen the trailer, included here, you know the general story, actually you know all of the story — even figuring out the ending before sitting in the theater to watch it.
The story rolls as couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) along with their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) relax in their idyllic holiday cabin. Their family getaway is disrupted by the arrival of four strangers; Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Redmond (Rupert Grint). After the four arrive, and instill dread into the family, they, or rather Leonard as leader, inform the family that they must choose to sacrifice one of the themselves to prevent the apocalypse and prevent the end of mankind. A great premise to investigate the psychological aspects of survival, love and humanity, so the tension builds early.
Unfortunately, as already stated, that tension loses momentum when backstories engage in the narrative. That backstory catalogues the struggles and joy they have encountered in life: from adopting their daughter, to being rejected by their own family. This a trick missed, because it would have been a lot more relevant and insightful to investigate the backstory of the four horsemen of the apocalypse that arrived, instead of relying on dialogue to generate that. And as each time the four ask the couple to make that sacrifice, each ‘no’ they give, unleashes a plague upon humanity. Those of a religious background will understand the premise of “sword, famine, wild beasts and pestilence”.
To be fair, Dave Bautista is actually very good here, and his emotional performance carries the film. I understand he is trying to shift from action hero to a more serious actor, but for sheer size and physique, he won’t find it as easy as Bruce Willis did. Rupert Grint is excellent also, but not in the movie enough, and any empathy for the four strangers is hard to feel as they are not given an equal portion of screen time — Bautista being the exception. Though, there is a fair share of gruesome scenes which may be some of Shyamalan’s most explicit, the fact that these scenes carry with them a great deal of emotional weight causes them to hit even harder.
Overall, however, you will feel short changed when leaving Knock At The Cabin, and unlike Old it will not be the fault of the actors. Truthfully, the movie, for all its tension, goes nowhere. Although there is a side story of how everyone in the cabin ‘might’ be connected, that part is never fully resolved. There is also hints of a cult-like, ritual killing and suicide pact that the four are a part of, but again that idea (which would have been worthwhile) is not used enough to make any overall impact. As I stated already, the trailer tells you the story, and you know deep down how it will end. Shyamalan might be getting lazy in his approach, or breaking away from a style that defined his movie making. Either way Knock At The Cabin is good, but it could have been so much more.