Shyamalan’s adaptation of Paul G. Tremblay’s novel takes liberties and then some.
After cratering with back-to-back commercial and critical failures (The Happening and The Last Airbender) and missing the mark with After Earth immediately thereafter, M. Night Shyamalan started a welcome comeback with The Visit (a modestly budgeted found footage horror entry), Split (a gnarly thriller elevated by an applause-worthy twist worthy), and Glass (a muddled conclusion to his subversive, anti-superhero trilogy). Old artfully played with an intriguing, provocative idea, but it’s still hard to shake the feeling that Shyamalan’s best days are behind him.
His latest film, Knock at the Cabin, a free adaptation of Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 bestselling novel The Cabin at the End of the World, probably won’t change that perception, but standing on its own, it’s an intense, suspenseful pre-apocalyptic, home-invasion thriller centered on the perpetual conflict between faith and reason, spiritual beliefs and objective reality. It also features a career peak for wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista as a gentle giant driven by eschatological visions to do terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad things to our sympathetic central family.
Knock at the Cabin opens with an ominous note as Bautista’s character, Leonard, wanders across a dirt path and approaches a girl, Wen (Kristen Cui), collecting grasshoppers in a jar. Everything about Leonard practically screams “stranger danger,” but his ability to talk to kids at their level (honed, as we learn, later through direct experience), figuratively and literally disarms Wen, causing her to momentarily relax her guard. The arrival of Leonard’s three associates, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Redmond (Rupert Grint), and Adriane (Abby Quinn), each wielding a homemade melee weapon, sends Wen scurrying back to the rented cabin of the title and her adopted parents, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge).
At least initially, Eric and Andrew are slow to believe Wen’s panicked claims about the strangers ambling toward the cabin, but her panicked insistence convinces them to close all the doors and lock all the windows. Seconds later, Leonard knocks on the cabin door, fulfilling the promise of the title, and calmly insisting that Eric and Andrew open the door. They just want to talk. Eric and Andrew understandably reject what Leonard and his followers are selling and refuse to open the door.
For Leonard and his zealous followers, entering the cabin is a matter of life and death—their lives and their deaths, but also the lives and potential deaths of the seven billion people inhabiting the Earth. Claiming they’ve been led to the cabin by a shared vision of an impending apocalypse, they repeatedly insist that only Eric and Andrew can save or doom everyone, including themselves. To save the world, Leonard claims Eric or Andrew must willingly sacrifice the other: One life in exchange for billions.
Eric and Andrew respond as anyone would, vocally insisting that Leonard and the others aren’t vanguards for some unnamed supernatural deity judging humanity, but suffering from a shared delusion at best or members of a death cult at worst. Either way, Eric and Andrew quickly find themselves subdued and tied up to chairs, forced to listen to Leonard’s sermon-like pleas, and hoping to leverage a moment of weakness or inattention into an escape.
Departing heavily from Tremblay’s novel, especially in a second half that will likely confuse readers expecting fidelity to the source material, Shyamalan strips the central story and the resolution of any and all ambiguity. Arguably, that intentional ambiguity was a point of frustration for a subset of Tremblay’s readers, but faithfulness aside, Shyamalan overall delivers an emotionally satisfying ending with just enough of a cathartic kick to justify the changes in adapting Tremblay’s novel for the big screen.
Shyamalan once again leverages one of his key strengths as a filmmaker here: Directing his actors to give grounded, believable performances, especially child actors. As Wen, Kristen Cui might seem like a secondary character, but she proves key, persuasively anchoring the loving, empathetic relationship between Eric and Andrew and reminding them of what’s really at stake, while also reliably handling some of the film’s most challenging, difficult scenes of physical danger and implied violence.
As another plus, Knock at the Cabin serves as a reminder that Shyamalan remains a talented, skillful visual storyteller. Too often his own worst enemy (M. Night the screenwriter disappointing M. Night the director), Shyamalan manages to strike the right balance between visuals, story, and themes, emphasizing off-center, off-kilter compositions, straight-to-camera close-ups, and otherwise unobtrusive camerawork to build interlinked scenes, sequences, and acts that escalate the tension.
Knock at the Cabin opens theatrically on Friday, February 3rd.