THE STORY – While vacationing at a remote cabin in the woods, a young girl and her parents are taken hostage by four armed strangers who demand they make an unthinkable choice to avert the apocalypse. Confused, scared and with limited access to the outside world, the family must decide what they believe before all is lost.
THE CAST – Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn & Rupert Grint
THE TEAM – M. Night Shyamalan (Director/Writer), Steve Desmond & Michael Sherman (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
The career of M. Night Shyamalan has primarily been one of diminishing returns, directing films with fantastic premises straight out of “The Twilight Zone” and then ruining them with “twist” endings that tend to sink the films instead of elevating them. His tight control of tone in early films like “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” has gotten looser with each passing film, culminating in the utterly ridiculous, laughably strange “Old” in 2021. But with his latest film “Knock At the Cabin,” Shyamalan has delivered his best film in years, an exercise in sustained tension that gains so much from its intimate nature, aided by a top-notch cast that knows how to elevate the script with their performances.
The premise, adapted from Paul G. Tremblay’s award-winning novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” is a corker: While on vacation at a remote cabin, couple Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) and their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) are visited by four people carrying terrifying makeshift weapons. They emphasize that they don’t want to hurt the family and that they’re not cult members but real people who didn’t know each other before meeting on their way to this very cabin. Leonard (Dave Bautista) is a second-grade teacher, and sports coach who moonlights as a bartender, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a nurse, Adriane (Abby Quinn) is a line cook and single mom, and Redmond (Rupert Grint) works for a gas company. They are all here because they share the same visions that have called them into action: If the family in the cabin does not sacrifice one of their members, then everyone else on the planet will die in an apocalyptic event. The crew of four has twenty-four hours to convince them, but each time the family is asked to make a sacrifice, and they say no, one of the four will die instead, bringing a plague on humanity with their sacrifice.
It’s a classic moral quandary: Will you sacrifice one to save many, even if that one is one of the people you love most in the world? Unfortunately, the film’s screenplay (finalized by Shyamalan from a script by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman) doesn’t play up that moral quandary in the ways you might expect, saving most of it for one scene near the film’s end that doesn’t receive enough of a build-up for it to land emotionally. Instead, the film mostly keeps it at a surface level, focusing on the family’s immediate reaction to what is happening around them and why these people would do this. The religious overtones of the intruders’ visions and prophecies take center stage, prompting some interesting questions: What would a modern-day prophet look like? Wouldn’t they sound like crazy people? Does that mean we see more clearly now, or we saw more clearly way back when?
However, these questions are mostly glanced over in favor of some truly exciting thriller setpieces. In returning to stripped-down basics, Shyamalan has found his groove again, popping off one squirm-in-your-seat, bite-your-nails moment after another, collaborating with his creative team to keep everything focused on squeezing the maximum amount of tension out of every moment. Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s heavy, portentous score does some heavy lifting. Still, Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is always evocative, emphasizing Bautista’s hulking size and the isolation of the family, and Noemi Preiswerk’s editing keeps pulses high even when things slow down. The cast is perfect, from top to bottom. Aldridge and Groff are easy to root for, sharing a deeply lived-in bond within a relationship that clearly hasn’t always been easy. All four intruders do a great job of carving out a personality from the generic types they’ve been given, but the most impressive thing is how they always feel like real people caught up in something far beyond their grasp – you feel for them almost as much as the family they’ve taken hostage. Bautista is the stand-out, granting Leonard a sense of calm that is at once friendly and deeply unsettling. His unwavering faith and domineering physical presence mark him as dangerous, but by turning his performance inward, Bautista keeps Leonard grounded in something real and slightly sad, making him far more interesting a character than he is on the page.
This being an M. Night Shyamalan film, you may very well be waiting for a “twist” near the film’s end. To his credit, Shyamalan hasn’t added one, allowing the whole film to play as straightforwardly as possible, much to the film’s credit. However, he has changed one plot point from the novel that changes the tone of the story’s ending in a way that shifts the story’s center just enough so that the film’s climax doesn’t feel entirely as earned as it might have, had it invested more time in certain characters early on. Even with that slight issue of adaptation, though, “Knock at the Cabin” is still a damn good psychological thriller, one that invests its premise with the right amount of seriousness for it to be scary but also imbues it with just enough fun for its nihilistic streak to go down easy. That’s a balance Shyamalan has struggled with in the past, but here, he nails it. Here’s hoping he’s back for good.