Knock at the Cabin ★★½

Starting from the 2015 film The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan has mostly financed and produced his own films outside of the studio system. The resulting films have mostly been relatively modest genre exercises of varying degrees of effectiveness. When he has deliberately limited himself to making a singular premise work (Old and Split), he has managed to make some of the better B-horror movies with the occasional directorial excess. When he gets too ambitious and tries to make a grand statement with his work, the results have been mixed such as for Glass and now Knock at the Cabin.

Knock at the Cabin

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Paul Tremblay, Knock at the Cabin features Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge playing a couple with a young adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) who are vacationing in the woods. Their cabin is invaded by four intruders, ostensibly led by Leonard (Dave Bautista), who claim that the family must choose one of its members to sacrifice in order to stop the impending apocalypse. Much of the film consists of the family trying to determine the truthfulness of this statement and the four messengers playing a violent game of apparent cat and mouse.

Much of Knock at the Cabin is quite well-executed. Shyamalan uses the limited budget to his advantage by telling a story of paranoia and fear of the unknown. A lot of the tricks he uses are simple yet effective such as using lights and shadows to create a threatening atmosphere. He makes the story feel weighty through intense close-ups and well-staged dialogue scenes even though the stakes are relatively small (as opposed to threatening the entire world ironically). Knock at the Cabin also has an excellent cast. Dave Bautista is the standout performance, one that directly elevates the film. Bautista has had a satisfying career arc where not only has he generally found good, meaty parts but also ones that stretched his acting skills. He has his most demanding role here, where he must play an essentially gentle, kind man forced into an impossible situation. His imposing physique belies the gentle personality that he exudes even as that same personality could potentially be perceived as masking something far more sinister. He is able to convey the ambiguity that this work needs.

On the topic of ambiguity, in M. Night Shyamalan’s work, there is a persistent need to explain the mystery. Shyamalan isn’t comfortable with unresolved issues, story-related or otherwise, which is why he has become so strongly associated with the twist ending, even when he has strayed somewhat from that mold. In a story that demands that characters wrestle with faith and lack of clarity, Knock at the Cabin seems to be striving for clarity to the point of triteness. There is a constant need to explain, through the use of news footage for example, and rationalize rather than letting the fear and uncertainty settle in with the characters. The fact that the family isn’t in immediate physical danger deflates the story’s tension somewhat. Also, attempts to humanize the couple, who suspect that they have been targeted for being gay, come off as ill-fitting within the overall narrative. Even when it becomes a major plot point, it isn’t explored as well as it could have been.

The movie’s ending differs from the book’s, which is both far more ambiguous and more momentous than the film turns out to be. The way that film resolves is in line with Shyamalan’s storytelling tendencies, but depending on how invested you have become in seeing how this story turns out, it could either come off as neat or extremely mawkish.  Shyamalan is quite talented and his work is always interesting even if it fails (sometimes quite spectacularly) but Knock at the Cabin is meant to be a crucible of faith and emotion, and Shyamalan seems to still be working in the studio mentality of technically competent but conventional storytelling.

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