'Knock at the Cabin': M. Night Shyamalan Delivers a Brilliantly Suspenseful Apocalyptic Thriller
Few filmmakers have had the career trajectory that M. Night Shyamalan has had. He started out with a pair of films that deal with crises of faith before his major breakout with 1999's The Sixth Sense. In the early 2000s, he quickly became known as "the twist guy" and despite some success, people began to turn on him with his film The Village. Following this, Shyamalan experienced a wave failures, with his films being horribly received. He became the butt of the joke and was ridiculed by many. But with the release of films like The Visit and Split in the mid-2010s, he began to get back on the right track, and both of these films were some of his biggest successes in years. Since then, his films have done well at the box office, and while the reviews for them may have been mixed, he has maintained a devoted audience who appreciates his work. It wasn't until the release of Split that I began to re-evaluate my own personal feelings on Shyamalan and his films, and I began to recognize him as one of our most fascinating filmmakers working today. I may not like every single one of his movies, but he takes risks and undoubtedly makes films the way he wants to.
With his latest film, Knock at the Cabin, he takes some big swings, but given that the film is largely set in one location, it does limit him a bit. This may sound like a negative, but it's arguably for the best. Shyamalan's more large-scale films are generally his worst, so setting some boundaries for him to work in is ultimately a good thing. Much like 2021's Old, it allows him to work his magic within certain parameters, and it makes for a thrilling experience that breaks from the usual fare that gets released in theaters these days. Cabin is certainly more straightforward than most of Shyamalan's work, but it is also quite tense and suspenseful. While there are boundaries in terms of its setting and plot, it allows him to do some of his most technically impressive work in years, and arguably deliver his best film in years.
Based on Paul Tremblay's novel The Cabin at the End of the World, the film centers on a young girl and her parents who are held hostage by a mysterious group of people while vacationing at a cabin in the woods. Led by the physically imposing Leonard (Dave Bautista), the group offers up an unthinkable choice to the family: sacrifice one of their owwn, or unleash the apocalypse. The action largely unfolds within the titular cabin, as both the family and the mysterious invaders wrestle with faith, logic, and their place in the world, all amidst the threat of destruction and death.
Perhaps it is the source material that helps this film the most, as the novel is rather strong. But what I appreciate the most about how Shyamalan and co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman adapt this is that the changes they make actually help the film significantly. It mostly stays faithful, but there are bigger changes that occur in the film that allow it to be more tense and play into its themes of faith and uncertainty quite well. The way it handles the faith of some of its characters is questionable, as it muddies up what the film is saying just a little, but despite this, it still ends up featuring some interesting ideas and implications. The group that breaks into the cabin is motivated by mysterious visions that they receive about the end of the world, and their belief in this is integral to their characters and their actions throughout the film. The concept of faith is at the center of the film, but it is zeroed in a little more here compared to the novel. This tracks considering that faith and belief are major themes in most of Shyamalan's work, but this is arguably the most head-on he has tackled them since his second film, 1996's Wide Awake. But while that film focused more on a crisis of faith, this film ponders whether harmful acts are justified when done in the name of faith. It's an interesting concept, and it wisely leaves any answers to it up to the audience. I'm not saying the film is incredibly deep, but it did leave me thinking about this for a little while after I finished watching it.
One of the other fascinating concepts the film explores is assimilation, specifically in regards to queer couples. Throughout the film, we see how the parents of the family, Andrew and Eric (Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff, respectively) have had to blend in either for survival or necessity. The fact that their trip to the cabin has been interrupted by unwanted visitors can be read as allegorical, considering that this could represent the difficulty many LGBTQ+ people have with living in a world that unfairly discriminates against them. The family is not allowed to enjoy their quiet vacation in the woods because of the invaders, just like how legislators and bigots make it difficult queer people to have a harmonious existence. This element is handled quite appropriately, and is a fascinating little wrinkle in the film.
Beyond the rich ideas in the script, the film is crafted quite nicely, both in terms of its writing and technical elements. The film's opening scene, in which Dave Bautista's Leonard approaches the young daughter of the family, Wen (Kristen Cui), sets the tone for the whole film and is shot so well. The use of close-ups during this scene gives the film some intensity, and establishes a strange connection between the characters that lasts throughout the film. There is a stillness in this moment that is interrupted by the use of Dutch angles as the conversation begins to shift, but once we are in the cabin, the camera becomes more fluid and active, which allows Shyamalan to use the camera in a near masterful way to build tension and to make the film more unsettling. The use of movement, either through zooms or tilts, is deployed perfectly, and truly stunned me. Perhaps the most curious choice Shyamalan makes is to not fully show the violence that occurs during the film. Make no mistake, there are violent and even bloody moments in the film, but the actual bloodshed is often obscured or the film cuts away from it. This intrigued me, as these moments still have a big impact, despite not actually seeing the full extent of the brutality that the characters experience. I feel like the active camera, along with the specificity in the editing is key to this, as it establishes a frenetic environment almost instantly, and allows the audience to use their imagination in its more violent scenes.
The film has a relatively small cast, which allows each of the actors in it to shine. Ben Aldridge is pretty good, although there are moments where it feels like he is telegraphing things just a little more than he should. He gets into a good groove as the film goes on, and he is particularly great in the film's final moments. Jonathan Groff is a bit muted, but it makes sense for the character, and allows him to internalize things a little more. He has a great monologue in the film's third act, and the interactions between him and Aldridge give the film a healthy dose of heart. Nikki Amuka-Bird is an actor who excels at taking smaller roles and making them sing, and this film is no exception. She is amazing all throughout, and is arguably the one character from the group of home invaders that you can't help but empathize with. I was also impressed by Rupert Grint, who is genuinely terrifying here. He plays the most unhinged member of the group, and he plays this role with great control. Abby Quinn is also quite solid, and her character feels rather genuine. She has this almost nervous quality that makes you question her motives at times, and she portrays it quite well. As for Kristen Cui, she is quite good in the film's opening scene, but isn't given much else otherwise. This makes sense, as the character of Wen is sidelined for large stretches of the book, but Cui does a good job with what she does get. But of course, the MVP is easily Dave Bautista. Bautista has emerged as a consistently great actor over the years, and this film allows him to tread some different territory. Bautista is a muscular mountain of a man, and the film allows him to act against this. We see him as a large, imposing figure, but he has a softness to his personality that gives him a great deal of nuance. He never raises his voice, and while he is not afraid to get violent, he clearly would rather handle the conflicts of the film in any other way. It's quite a fascinating performance, as his calmness is somewhat unsettling, but gives way to a fuller more human characterization from Bautista that makes it difficult to tear your eyes away from him.
Knock at the Cabin is perhaps Shyamalan's best work since the early 2000s, as it is brilliant on both a technical level and a narrative one. It has some flaws, mainly due to some of its ideas feeling slightly undercooked, but the good far outweighs the bad here. As someone who considers himself a bit of Shyamalan apologist, this film shows just how great of a filmmaker he truly is, and brings a lot of his strengths to the forefront. He feels so assured and confident with this film, and I hope that he continues to have this energy in his future work. He is such a great visual storyteller, and he is a better writer than he gets credit for. Others might continue to make jokes at his expense, but if nothing else, this film proves that he is one of the more interesting mainstream filmmakers working today, and that he still has a gift for crafting excellent thrillers.