If there’s one thing M. Night Shyamalan is great at, it’s keeping the audience guessing. Shyamalan’s best films almost always center on some big mystery, or reveal by the end that it was a mystery all along. To that end, his new film Knock at the Cabin is right in the filmmaker’s wheelhouse. The film succinctly and provocatively sets up a fascinating mystery that unravels and unfolds until the very last scene.
Along the way, Shyamalan’s direction and script (which he co-wrote with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman) swing the audience back and forth between points of view and make us consider the nature of belief itself. Do you believe everything you see? Do you need proof? Truth is certainly a topic that’s very of the times. Beyond that central theme though, while Knock at the Cabin works well in almost every way, it’s missing a spark of energy and intrigue that truly would’ve really knocked it out of the park.
Based on a novel by Paul G. Tremblay, Knock at the Cabin follows a family who decides to rent a rustic cabin for their vacation: a young daughter named Wen (Kristen Cui) and her dads Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). In the film’s very first scene Wen, then her dads, are confronted by four strangers. After knocking and asking nicely, these strangers force themselves into the cabin for what they say is the most important job in human history.
The strangers are Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint). Together, they tell the family they must pick one of the three of them to die; otherwise, the world is going to end. This shocking claim is, logically, met with more skepticism and disbelief than fear and so the strangers do everything they can to impress on Eric, Andrew, and Wen that they’re not lying.
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But they have to be lying, right? That’s the crux of the entire film and Shyamalan provides arguments and clues on both sides. There are hints that maybe these strangers are part of an elaborate ruse. On the other hand, certain claims suggest maybe they’re telling the truth. All of which is almost impossible to fathom, but is conveyed with the utmost care by the performances of the lead actors.
Because, you see, Leonard, Sabrina, Adriane, and Redmond aren’t overtly violent. They have these weapons and they broke into the house—but they’re also sincerely trying to convince the family that what they’re saying is real. Bautista in particular gives a beautifully heartfelt performance as Leonard. Yes, he’s a huge, hulking man, but Leonard is kind, gentle, and thoughtful. He’s so nice and sweet that you almost start to believe him. It’s one of the best, if not the best, performances of Bautista’s increasingly impressive career.
Playing the family at the center, Groff, Aldridge, and Cui also give wholly realized, noteworthy performances. Of course, they’re the audience’s way into the story, the unassuming family told they now have this impossible responsibility, and each of the family members has their own unique and sometimes opposing roller coaster to ride. Each goes from “This can’t be true” to “Maybe this is true,” with all manner of nuance in between. These performances also help to elevate a film that can, at times, feel smaller than its apocalyptic subject matter.
As the characters and the audience weigh the two sides of this, the film continually escalates in ways we won’t spoil here. But this is where I feel Shyamalan falters a bit. Though Knock at the Cabin is rated R, whenever there are scenes of extreme violence, the camera moves away before it happens. We hear it, but the sound is never quite as impactful as the visual of it. This was certainly a very conscious choice but it’s one of a few ways the rising tension of the film begins to falter.
Another is that, as you’d expect, Shyamalan fills Knock at the Cabin with red herrings. Asides and clues you think will amount to something but don’t. So as you’re watching you keep this one scene in the back of your head or this odd turn of phrase, hoping it’ll pay off in the end. And yet, many of them don’t. Even though the film’s ultimate reveal is wholly satisfying and done incredibly well, it feels like a puzzle that, when put together, somehow left a few extra pieces in the box.
By the end of Knock at the Cabin, you get the sense it’s a film that did everything right. The story is well-paced, there’s no extraneous plot, it keeps you engaged throughout, and it ends in a memorable, cohesive way. However, it’s just one of those movies where—performances aside—nothing in it goes above and beyond. It’s just there. It happens. It works but it only inspires true awe and wonder on the rarest occasions, something that separates a very good film from being great.
As a result, I don’t think Knock at the Cabin is one of M. Night Shyamalan’s best films to date, but it’s firmly in the category right below that. It’s solid. A powerful, entertaining film that gives its audience lots to think about both while watching and also after, but never rises above that.
Knock at the Cabin opens in theaters Friday.
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