If you map out M. Night Shyamalan’s career, it would look like a roller coaster of ups and downs. From peaks like The Sixth Sense, Split, and The Village to the wildly low points of The Happening, Old, and The Last Airbender, Shyamalan has a loss for every win. Luckily his latest effort, Knock at the Cabin, is a capable thriller that may not put the cart at the top of the roller coaster, but it’s definitely climbing.
Taking place in a remote rental cabin, loving family Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) and their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) are on a relaxing retreat when Leonard (Dave Bautista) arrives out of the woods. With a knock at the cabin door, Leonard announces that the apocalypse is upon them and the only way to save humanity is for this adorable family to make a choice: sacrifice one of them to save the world.
A gentle giant who coaches teen sports and knows how to catch a grasshopper, Leonard (and his tiny glasses) is the leader of a crew consisting of bigoted ex-con Redmond (Rupert Grint who also stars in Shyamalan’s Apple TV+ series, Servant), caring nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and nurturing bartender Ardiane (Abby Quinn). This isn’t a skilled home invasion crew or a gang looking for bloody thrills. This reluctant crew is very sorry to be there, they tell the family, but their shared visions brought them together as messengers of the apocalypse.
A well-staged thriller, Knock at the Cabin utilizes its single setting to the best of its abilities, heightened with cinematography by Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer. Meanwhile, Eric and Andrew are a captive audience who must decide whether Leonard and co.’s visions are fact or fantasy. Intercut with flashbacks of the times when they were met with disapproval and hatred as a same-sex couple, Andrew is more inclined to believe this is a targeted attack. The more religious Eric, who always tries to see the good in people, isn’t ready to make a judgement just yet.
The concept is an intriguing one – would you sacrifice your own family and happiness to save a world that is filled with monsters? The reluctant home invaders are distraught by the task at hand as they warn that should the family not decide to sacrifice one of their own, a plague of illness and natural disasters will continue to affect the world in increasingly horrific ways. However dire their threats and the consequences may be, there is a real element of fear and tension that seems to be missing from Knock at the Cabin. The story is such a linear one that we can see it marching toward the conclusion at a steady pace. Barbarian this isn’t.
The film feels like it doesn’t quite align with Shyamalan’s oeuvre of twisted and twisty stories. Perhaps that’s because for the first time since his disastrous 2010 effort The Last Airbender, the story isn’t an original one. Collaborating with co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman to adapt Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World, it could be argued that Shyamalan’s touch is largely absent from the film. Sure, his trademark cameo played to laughs in the theatre, but this story is so devoid of twists (or perhaps they’re just so obvious that they don’t even register) that Knock at the Cabin could be the work of Drew Goddard, Fede Alvarez, or another skilled modern thriller director. There is blood and brutalism here, but in line with most of his work, Shyamalan’s story doesn’t rely on gore to make its metaphorical point.
The true star of the film is Bautista who continues to do what Dwayne Johnson could never. The former wrestler shines as the big and burly Leonard who looks imposing but is a gentle giant. With excellent turns in Glass Onion, and in Denis Villeneueve’s Blade Runner 2049 and Dune, Bautista is making career choices that demonstrate he has way more to offer than the heavyweight superhero roles he might otherwise be pigeonholed into.
Though Knock at the Cabin may not deliver the kind of carnage and thrills viewers have come to expect from the “cabin” genre of horror films, Shyamalan’s latest film warrants a watch, even if it lands with a slow blow more than a punch to the gut. And at least it’s better than Old.
Knock at the Cabin opens in theatres on February 3.