(for violence and strong language)
Released: February 3, 2023
Runtime: 100 minutes
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint
M. Night Shyamalan is such a gifted auteur (yes, that’s the “A” word; I said what I said), especially when it comes to crafting a slow, crescendoing suspense thriller with classic genre film language, and Knock at the Cabin is yet another example of Night working at the peak of those powers.
Too bad the story is so thin.
Its premise is provocative and the characterizations compelling (elevated by strong performances across the ensemble), but this home invasion with apocalyptic stakes doesn’t have much meat on the bone. If it had, Knock at the Cabin could’ve served as a fitting double-feature companion to Shyamalan’s rurally-isolated alien invasion family thriller Signs.
Shyamalan pads the plot out serviceably enough to a 95-minute narrative that doesn’t drag but, as it goes, tension becomes muted. There’s a strict set of rules that must be followed as to what can and can’t happen (these high-concept thrillers always have rules) , and that requires the movie to (quite literally) pull its punches.
Husbands Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge) are vacationing at a cozy cabin deep in a bucolic forest with their grade school daughter Wen (Kristen Cui, another superb child-actor discovery for Shyamalan). One morning, a quartet of religious fanatics emerge from the woods who led by Leonard (Dave Bautista), a man of formidable muscular bulk. Dude is jacked and tatted. With medieval weaponry, they invade the cabin and hold the family hostage.
Leonard’s disposition, however, is the opposite of his appearance. He is a gentle giant; a kind, compassionate man who – with anguish and grief, but driven by an overriding conviction – brings an ominous message: the family must kill one of their own, or else the End of the World will come.
The invaders claim to have independently shared the same vision that has led them to this place, this moment and this revelation. Not knowing who they would, the residents would be the people destined to carry out the grisly moral choice.
Wading into more specifics would dive into spoiler territory so I’ll stop but, from there, the story unfolds by showing the lengths these invaders will go to in order to convince the family that what they’re confronting them with is the truth. Their tactics swing from sincere, tearful, and even heartbreaking appeals to (if need be) violent sacrifices.
Flashbacks to how Eric and Andrew first met and then became parents flesh out the character development, albeit in rather rote ways, while also containing at least one visual clue as to where all of this is headed, but overall the script simply constructs a surface-level plot that leads to more inevitabilities than surprises.
Along the way, while consequences of decisions (or indecision) become grisly, the rules by which the invaders must abide (as was laid out to them in their prophetic visions) actually keeps the danger to the family at arm’s length. Yes, anything could happen, but they’re rarely in danger, if at all. And that’s a problem.
Furthermore, there’s no real mystery to grapple with or unravel here. Instead, it’s simply a coin-flip binary: either these fanatics are right or they’re not. If they are, that’s a horrible reality no matter what decision is made. And if they’re not then, well, the situation will resolve itself eventually with no real threat to the family.
It’s possible that Shyamalan could have introduced a third way into the final act that would’ve raised the stakes and intrigue, but (INCONSEQUENTIAL SPOILER ALERT) he doesn’t. So it just is what it is.
There’s no true twist, either (which is fine, perhaps even welcome), but the denouement does offer a clever definition of who the invaders are — enough, at least, to elicit a genuinely intrigued “Huh” from me.
The coda’s implied heroism also layers a poignant humanity over this brutal journey, which keeps it from being nihilistic (which it easily could’ve been in more cynical hands), but ultimately it’s missing a reason for being beyond posing a moral “What if?” hypothetical that no one will ever actually be faced with.
Indeed, the character work within the story’s binary is more compelling than the plot’s impossible choice. Bautista, especially, brings a soulful, grieving sensitivity to Leonard that we’ve not seen from him before. As one of the two husbands, Ben Aldridge delivers an impassioned courage and resolve in what may be his biggest showcase to American audiences so far.
And young Kristen Cui is particularly impressive; a young, natural talent who emotes and shifts spontaneously between a wide range of emotions, all credibly delivered, never artificial, from fear to curiosity to suspicion and surprise, and more.
It’s all skillfully crafted with a patient, unnerving precision, and it’s no small gift to see a director who really knows how to use a camera and edit with intention (while shooting on film stock, no less) rather than just frame a shot well and assemble coverage.
Night’s aesthetic is timeless, not contemporary. He’s a pop-cineaste who has been gleaned from the masters, one who doesn’t settle for being yet another indistinct stylist fortunate enough to live in an age where quality production values are more consistently attained.
Knock at the Cabin, in its own way, is another big swing from a director who refuses to settle for base hits. And while it doesn’t fly as deep into the stands as his career-defining home runs (it’s a taut exercise, but an empty one), it’s good to see Shyamalan keep swinging with a resolute conviction to his particular form.
Even more than some of his recent efforts, Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin feels like cinema (although Old saw him get back on that track). It reminds you of the filmmaker who was once christened The Next Spielberg, and it’s a reassurance that, for however long M. Night Shyamalan may keep making movies, he’ll always come knocking.