Acclaimed writer/director M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the scene with his super successful debut film THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), and in the years since has enjoyed an up and down career with a variety of hits and misses.
For me, most of Shyamalan’s movies have been misses, but when he’s on his game, and the story is as strong as his direction, and the film isn’t done in by a superficial plot twist, the results are pretty darn good.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN (2023), Shyamalan’s latest, fall into this latter category. It’s pretty darn good! And he’s helped here by superior source material, as the screenplay by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman is based on the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. Those of us from the New England horror community know Paul very well and are overjoyed that his writing is being adapted by Hollywood and turned into movies. Way to go, Paul!
So, KNOCK AT THE CABIN has a strong story, and M. Night Shyamalan does right by it.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN opens with a little girl Wen (Kristen Cui) playing alone in the woods catching grasshoppers, when she is approached by a very large yet softspoken stranger who introduces himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista). Although Wen tells Leonard she doesn’t talk to strangers, he has a gentle way about him, and soon they are talking. The conversation begins innocently enough, but when three other strangers arrive, Leonard tells Wen that they are there to talk to her and her parents and they are going to have to make a difficult choice, words that frighten Wen and cause her to run back to her cabin where she finds her two “dads,” Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) and warns them that four strangers are on their way to the cabin.
Andrew and Eric immediately become alarmed when they see these four people at the door holding various sharp tools and weapons. Leonard asks to be let in, but Andrew and Eric refuse. Eventually, the four strangers force their way in, and after a scuffle, Andrew and Eric are tied to chairs and find themselves at the mercy of these four people. The two men immediately believe that they have been targeted because they are gay, but the softspoken Leonard assures them that is not the case, that they didn’t even know they were a same sex couple until they arrived at the cabin.
When Leonard starts speaking of shared visions that the four have had, and of the oncoming apocalypse which will wipe out all humanity, Andrew and Eric then believe that they have been overpowered by a group of religious fanatics. Things get worse when Leonard explains that the only way the apocalypse can be avoided is if there is a sacrifice, and that sacrifice will have to be made by Andrew, Eric, or Wen.
One life to save humanity.
While the story told in KNOCK AT THE CABIN is refreshing, in that it’s not about attacking a same sex couple because of extreme homophobia, and early on the audience is thinking the same thing that both Andrew and Eric are thinking, that they have been targeted because they are gay, it’s not without flaws. For starters, strangely, considering the premise, this movie is nowhere near as intensely disturbing as expected. Part of it is the plot itself. When Leonard goes on and on about the apocalypse, Andrew and Eric both think he and the others are simply crazy, and rightly so! I’m right there with them, as most others would be. Leonard and the three others are trying to convince Andrew and Eric to make an impossible sacrificial choice, but really, it’s not so impossible, because Andrew and Eric don’t believe it.
Unless you do this, the world will end!
Okay, I don’t believe you. So, we’re not doing it! End of story.
Also, the idea that Andrew and Eric have control over the decision is much less intense than if they had zero control, where the four strangers were going to do something horrible to them, but that’s not case. The point, of course, is the question, would you make that sacrifice for your fellow humans? The problem is there is no way that most folks here in 2023 are going to buy this premise. The apocalypse? I’ll wait till God shows up in person, thank you very much!
And neither Andrew or Eric ever ask the question, who is asking them to make this choice? God? Really? It makes no sense religiously. Sure, there are sacrifices throughout the Bible, but for Christians, at least, those sacrificial days are over, because of Jesus.
Also, as the movie goes on, Andrew begins to poke holes in their story and makes a strong and convincing argument that the four themselves are being manipulated by a group delusion and are experiencing a shared psychotic disorder, but the story doesn’t go there, and so at the end of the day, things are a bit murky, because what Andrew said made sense, and he even offers proof, but nothing comes of it.
Still, KNOCK AT THE CABIN is intriguing and enjoyable. It also features some solid acting performances.
Dave Bautista is perfect as Leonard, the gentle giant, who explains that he is an elementary school teacher and that one reason he is doing this is he doesn’t want his young students to die. Bautista has been fun as Drax in both the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and THE AVENGERS movies, and he’s been memorable in a bunch of other movies as well, but his performance here in KNOCK AT THE CABIN is one of his best. The only knock against him… heh, heh!… is his consistent calm demeanor and the fact that he promises not to harm the family removes a heck of a lot of tension in this movie.
Ben Aldridge as Andrew, the more hot-headed of the two parents, and Jonathan Groff as Eric are also superb. They really make you care for these two guys, and that’s one of the more emotional parts of this movie. The audience really feels their love for each other and doesn’t want to see anything happen to either one of them. Groff of course is known for his work in HAMILTON (2020) and FROZEN (2013), but my favorite Jonathan Groff role remains his FBI character Holden Ford on the short-lived yet superior Netflix TV series, MINDHUNTER (2017-2019).
Rupert Grint, known to Harry Potter fans as Ron in the HARRY POTTER movies, is really good here as Redmond, the least balanced of the four strangers, and the one who makes the family the most uncomfortable. Nikki Amuka-Bird as Sabrina and Abby Quinn as Adriane round out the four strangers and do decent jobs in the roles.
The other phenomenal performance in this movie belongs to young Kristen Cui as Wen. Her expressions throughout this movie are perfect. One of the more intense scenes in the film is when the four strangers are intially at the door trying to get in, and the main reason for this intensity is Cui’s panicked cries for her parents to make these people go away.
On the other hand, another reason this film isn’t as disturbing as expected, is little Wen is largely shielded from all the horrors here. The film doesn’t go there, but if it had, it would have been really frightening.
M. Night Shyamalan keeps the camera tight on Dave Bautista, making him seem immense throughout. Bautista is gigantic in real life, so he doesn’t need much help to look bigger, but Shyamalan’s camerawork does just that. The most riveting scene in the movie and the one Shyamalan does his best work on is the sequence where Andrew makes a break for it and desperately tries to get his gun from the back of his car. Other than this sequence, the intensity is all rather low key.
That being said, I really enjoyed KNOCK AT THE CABIN. I wish it had been more frightening, and I wish there was more to its premise other than the derailing of the apocalypse, but the story was refreshing enough to hold my interest throughout.
I give it three stars.
Four stars- Excellent
Three stars- Very Good
Two stars- Fair
One star- Poor
Zero Stars- Awful