Though it may not seem so at first glance, Knock At The Cabin is something of a departure from director M. Night Shyamalan’s previous work. Adapting Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin At The End Of The World in a screenplay that he co-wrote with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, Shyamalan is certainly treading familiar thematic ground, most notably visited in 2002’s Signs. But the big revelation here is that, in contrast to 2021’s Old, he has seemingly grown beyond the need to build toward shocking revelations. Knock At The Cabin reaches the credits decidedly untwisted, but that doesn’t keep the film from building horrific tension through a devastating domestic hypothetical.
As seven-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) catches grasshoppers outside the vacation cabin her dads Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) have rented, she is approached by a large stranger who introduces himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista). Though the soft-spoken man is kind, Wen starts to realize something is wrong when three more strangers (Nikka Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint) also emerge from the woods, carrying bladed implements clearly designed as weapons. Despite her attempts to warn her parents, the strangers break into the cabin, subduing Eric and Andrew in the process. With a now-captive audience, the clearly remorseful Leonard presents the family with a choice: they must choose one of the three of them as a willing sacrifice, or else a series of plagues will consume humanity.
This obviously ludicrous claim serves as the basis for a contained scenario that undermines the characters’ sense of reality. The four intruders grapple with their shared visions of an imminent apocalypse, believing that this awful task has been appointed to them by powers beyond comprehension. Meanwhile, Andrew, a realist and cynic, pokes holes in their narrative, concluding that their theology is a veiled excuse to persecute a gay couple, and a concussed Eric starts to wonder if the apparent mounting evidence in favor of apocalyptic consequences is more than just an orchestrated series of coincidences. Shyamalan traps these characters in a contorted examination of faith, driven by unclear, possibly insane motivations that may nevertheless be correct in their assertions, making the comforting lure of known reality all the more tantalizing as the world goes crazy with them.
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Staged almost entirely within the titular cabin, Shyamalan draws direct attention to the performances he coaxes from his cast, often opting for tight close-ups that allow emotionally conflicted faces to fill the frame. Groff and Aldridge are a convincingly loving couple whose temperaments balance one another to build a loving home for their daughter, with the friction of their differing outlooks forcing them to examine the lengths they will go for each other at the potential cost of the world. It’s Bautista, however, who absolutely steals the show as Leonard, a reluctant leader who knows exactly how crazy he sounds but bears the weight of inhuman necessity. The hulking former wrestler has truly developed into a talented actor, as he’s completely captivating as a man with a voice too small for his frame, a martyr to a cause he clearly doesn’t want to be true, and a schoolteacher who despises the thought of using his size for violence.
Where Shyamalan does a small stumbling disservice to these excellent characters is in the adaptational changes made to Tremblay’s novel. One major plot point has been reworked in the narrative’s latter half in the interests of mainstream cinematic taste—arguably for the best—but it signals a cascading effect on the events of the third act that somewhat undermines the novel’s greatest strength: ambiguity. Though Shyamalan resists the urge to turn his climax into a trademark twist, he does opt for a more concrete answer to the questionable apocalypse, and ultimately finds an angle to resolve the tension in a less haunting manner than Tremblay. The resulting ending is perhaps more satisfying for its more definitive philosophical stance and conclusive plotting, but it lacks some of the complexity of belief, truth, and blind conviction explored in previous acts, tying an emotionally messy story up a bit too neatly in the process.
Even so, Knock At The Cabin is a harrowing and intense home invasion thriller that feels like a step in the right direction for Shyamalan. Even knowing the beats of the source material, it’s easy to get caught up in the intensity of the scenario, to see doubt waver over the conviction of every character as they grapple with a potentially distorted reality. Whether you’re more concerned with the fate of one family or the fate of the world, Knock At The Cabin may just make you question how you’d handle such an impossible choice.
Knock At The Cabin opens theatrically on February 3, 2023.