Knock at the Cabin

Knock at the Cabin

2023, R, 100 min. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Dave Bautista, Ben Aldridge, Jonathan Groff, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint, Abby Quinn, Kristen Cui.

REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., Feb. 10, 2023

It’s not often M. Night Shyamalan tells a story not his own. The last time he made an adaptation of an existing property – in 2010 with The Last Airbender – was the nadir of his career, released in the midst of a string of critical bombs that seemed to be foretelling the inevitable doom of a once acclaimed director.

Thirteen years later and, depending on who you ask, one could say Shyamalan has gotten his mojo back. Ever since 2015’s The Visit, he’s been able to thrive within his own space as an idiosyncratic virtuoso of suspenseful and thrilling genre pieces. His films always exist within his own peculiar world and they’re better for it. It may not work for everybody, but the dexterity of his impassioned craft and inventive storytelling that exists exclusively on his terms has afforded him new life among devoted acolytes who, to put it simply, fuck with the vision.

He brings that same cinematic aptitude to a new adaptation: Knock at the Cabin, based on horror novelist Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World. It’s easy to see what spoke to Shyamalan within the book. The story turns the home-invasion thriller on its head into a unique moral and existential quandary that immediately feels at home within M. Night’s scope of off-kilter interests. The stakes seem simple at first: Couple Eric and Andrew (Groff and Aldridge, respectively) and their adopted daughter, Wen (Cui), are vacationing at a remote cabin in the woods when four strangers suddenly arrive – with what appear to be makeshift weapons – and ask for entry. The threat seems clear but soon becomes something more tricky. The group’s leader, Leonard (a never-better Bautista), claims that the four of them were sent as messengers and that one member of the family must be chosen as a sacrifice, or else they will bear responsibility for an oncoming apocalypse.

Following closely to the book’s events early on, the film chews on this dilemma for all its worth. Tremblay’s novel conveys the impossibility of the decision through his haunting and descriptive writing, so evocative as to be stomach-turning in its eventual inevitability. The film isn’t quite as heavy as the book, but Shyamalan morphs it into his own typically eccentric flavor of a thriller. Where he loses the words of the novel, his camera picks up the slack. Once again shooting in 35mm, cinematographers Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer lens the hell out of a limited locale to help him create another beautiful-looking film. His standard formal rigor is in full force; at a point, it feels like the guy is just rightfully showing off. The run time is modest and the pace rapid, with the screenplay co-written by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman never feeling obligated to catch a breath. It exudes pure confidence.

That bravura intensifies the paranoia and skepticism at the heart of the story. The film’s interlopers are fascinating in their obfuscated reasons for their actions. They seem to truly believe their own words, but are they to be trusted? Andrew believes they’ve been targeted as the victims of a homophobic attack, or that it’s a shared delusion of the mentally sick group of online doomers. Eric’s beliefs are shaken throughout, as he swings back and forth between disbelief and buying into the madness. Where the novel had more opportunity to get to the heart of the split dichotomy between the two, the film conveys just the right amount of extraneous information with flashbacks depicting key moments in their relationship that affect their ideological points of view.

It’s smart, then, that Shyamalan shirks the novel’s ending for one that makes more sense for the sensibilities of a screen translation. It trades stark ambiguity for big, emotional clarity in a way that still feels true to the source material, which questions the limits of one’s duty to sacrifice what they love for a world that they’re not even sure is worth saving. It’s harrowing to ponder, but a joy to watch unfold when told by someone with such distinct cinematic prowess.

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Knock at the Cabin, M. Night Shyamalan, Dave Bautista, Ben Aldridge, Jonathan Groff, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint, Abby Quinn, Kristen Cui

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