The Philly auteur delivers one of his strongest thrillers in quite some time
Philly auteur M. Night Shyamalan is back, this time with his latest foray into genre — Knock at the Cabin. This film has the director adapting Paul G. Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World and putting his patented “twist ending” spin on it, in a film that could be his strongest in quite some time.
Knock at the Cabin is the story of a same sex family and their adopted daughter vacationing at a small cabin in the remote woods of Pennsylvania, when four strangers with homemade medieval weapons show up. In a sort of apocalyptic take on the home invasion film, the invaders, led by the childlike Leonard (Dave Bautista), tie up the family and claim they have been drawn to the cabin by visions of the end of the world. The only way they can stop it is if the family willingly sacrifices one of their own to save billions of lives. Otherwise, each of the four will be sacrificed one by one in front of the family, unleashing a plague onto the earth with their death.
Is this the end of the world or just another day in America?
Knock at the Cabin feels like M. Night’s COVID/Trump movie. I mean obviously one of the plagues is a COVID-like epidemic, but the film also uses the four strangers to dig into the Q-Anon-like brainwashing that can occur in these internet echo chambers that favor religious extremism. In true M. Night fashion the real hook here is, do we know these four are really on a mission from God, or is this gay couple just victims of the latest internet death cult hate crime? It’s something that’s rather masterfully toyed with through flashbacks of the couple meeting and adopting their young daughter from China, which is offset by quiet moments with the four who each have their own story to tell. Not to spoil the ending, which is fairly different from the book’s more ambiguous take, but this film kinda has to since it’s going to a multiplex.
I’ve always been a fan of Dave Bautista’s more dramatic takes, his bit in Blade Runner 2049 was a revelation for the actor who I previously only knew from his wrestling career and his more comedic roles. There was a quietness to that opening interrogation with Ryan Gosling that showed a raw potential as a performer that just needed the right material and director to unlock it. Knock at the Cabin has Bautista front and center as a children’s coach turned possible end time crusader that speaks with a measured and careful rhythm filled with emotional weight. I mean we may not believe Leornard, but he most certainly believes what he does and that’s not easy to do when you’re not just playing it crazy. It’s Bautista’s child-like interaction with the daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) that is responsible for locking you in and emotionally investing you.
The film itself is a carefully crafted series of false flags and misdirections that really dig into what kind of person you are. Being a rather liberal person myself, I nearly instantly sided with the couple, but that’s something Night is great at playing against you as well get filled in on Dad Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Dad Andrew (Ben Aldridge). My only qualm with the film oddly enough is how little we discover about the four strangers, but this also helps in the runtime department since this film just hums along at a 100 minutes that feels like 45. Night is careful not to overstep his welcome or show his hand too soon, but once he does, that final act thankfully sticks the landing. Knock at the Cabin is an atmospheric funhouse of a film that toys with stereotypes and preconceptions in a way I wasn’t quite expecting. The film has Night not only delivering a full on message film, but showing a deft control of the genre at work.