Release: Friday, February 3, 2023
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan; Steve Desmond; Michael Sherman
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Dave Bautista; Ben Aldridge; Jonathan Groff; Nikki Amuka-Bird; Abby Quinn; Rupert Grint; Kristen Cui
Distributor: Universal Pictures
A compelling moral dilemma takes center stage in M. Night Shyamalan‘s new film Knock at the Cabin, a home invasion thriller set in remote Pennsylvania and at the edge of the apocalypse. Adapting the 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, Shyamalan may not be working from scratch, and by all accounts the book and the movie are different beasts, but for at least the first half this is one of his stronger efforts in some time.
Knock at the Cabin finds the 52-year-old director working in rare R-rated territory, following only 2008’s The Happening. Spoiler alert, this experiment is a little more convincing, even if it fizzles out in the end. Thirty-something dads Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) have taken their seven-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) to a quaint cabin in the Pennsylvania wilderness for some R&R. As Wen scouts the surroundings for grasshoppers to collect in her terrarium she is approached by a mountain of a man, Leonard (an outstanding Dave Bautista), who does everything he can to reassure the little girl he isn’t here to harm anyone.
The former wrestler embraces the opportunity to play a more nuanced, emotionally conflicted role and excels in it. A contradiction of menacing size and gentle demeanor, Bautista is the movie’s MVP by far. Leonard says he has urgent news to deliver and feels terrible about what it’s going to do to a nice family. Attempts to break the ice fail when three other individuals appear behind him, each carrying some kind of homemade weapon, causing Wen to flee inside to alert her parents. Leonard insists on diplomatic methods and repeatedly states a desire to avoid violence. But the best laid plans still end up with someone more fuzzy-headed than they should be, and a child bearing witness to more bloodshed than was ever intended.
The foursome — Leonard, a schoolteacher; Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a nurse; Adriane (Abby Quinn), a restaurant cook; and Redmond (Rupert Grint), the loose cannon fresh off a stint in jail — claim to have been guided to this particular cabin after having experienced a shared vision of the end of days. They say they don’t know each other. With deep exhales they also state that the inhabitants are the only ones who can help prevent catastrophe, but in order to do so the family will have to sacrifice one of their own or else humanity will slip into an unending darkness. As if that’s not enough, the act has to be voluntary and suicide doesn’t count.
With his latest stress test Shyamalan proves to be more a master technician behind the scenes than a powerful messenger behind the pulpit. For what essentially amounts to a chamber piece, Cabin is a surprisingly dynamic viewing experience, chockablock with unconventional camera angles pulling us in further when we want to lean back. Other choices are commendably economic — once again a TV becomes an important narrative device to connect us to the outside world, although the service it provides is nowhere near as chilling as it was in Signs. And the way he integrates flashbacks is not as interruptive as it could be; in fact in some ways the unpleasantries dealt with here only add to the stress of the present.
Regrettably, it’s when the film goes big that it also gets weaker. In guiding us away from what might be to what actually is, Shyamalan struggles to make what’s preordained feel organic, to convince us that the choices being made are not the whims of a writer but rather the results of selflessness and excruciating introspection. Even worse, in choosing his own sentimental ending he invites mockery and criticism rather than profundity — not of his actors and the family they create, but of the logic that dictates who gets to live and who doesn’t.
It’s not that Shyamalan is out of his depth thematically here; elements of faith and denialism have found their way into much of his work, whether it’s a priest having a personal crisis amidst an alien invasion or a kid coming to terms with the fact his dad is an actual superhero. (And in the aforementioned, other-R-rated offering, you just had to hold on to the hope he hadn’t lost his touch.) With Cabin, he gives us another provocative situation and draws out some great acting from his small cast. In the end, it may be a case where some things are just better left unexplained.
Moral of the Story: One of Shyamalan’s better efforts, despite its flaws. The performances (beyond Bautista) are all solid, as is the hook. A really strong first half gives way to a less satisfying third act where the direction becomes more forceful and in that way less natural.
Running Time: 100 mins.
Quoted: “Maybe the truth is that the end was happening long before we got to this cabin. And what we’re seeing now isn’t the fireworks. It’s just the final flickering sparks.”
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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com