'Knock at the Cabin' Review
February 1, 2023
Knock at the Cabin is so good that it makes M. Night Shyamalan’s previous film, Old, just that more fascinating in retrospect. The lack of terrible line readings and quality acting within Cabin seems to validate the conspiracy theory (which a few critics and audience members embraced from the start) that the alien-like awkwardness within Old was intentional, almost like Shyamalan was playing a joke on all of us. But that theory would also have to extend to the terribleness within Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender, which becomes too far-fetched to be fully believed.
Cabin finds the believers pitted against the non-believers. But this isn’t a debate over the typical beliefs surrounding religion, politics, or sexual orientation. No, this is about whether you believe that the world is about to be consumed by an apocalypse of biblical proportions and that the only way to stop it is to sacrifice a family member.
Leading the group of believers is Dave Bautista’s Leonard, a gentle giant who fully understands the impossible situation that he is thrusting upon the family of parents Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff), and daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). Along with Leonard are three other believers, all of whom have shared the same catastrophic visions, including tsunami waves as tall as skyscrapers and the sky being shrouded in permanent darkness. Of course, Andrew and Eric don’t take the situation too lightly and think that these people are part of a crazed cult, prompting the believers to stage an impromptu home invasion in order to get the necessary sacrificial lamb.
Shyamalan’s film follows a long line of entries within the specific “what would you do?” horror-thriller subgenre. How much evidence would you need to contemplate killing one of your family members in order to save the world? It’s a question the director constantly keeps at the forefront of his screenplay, co-written with the duo of Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman from the book by Paul Tremblay. The tension is palpable as the “intruders” say all the right things and act with sympathetic politeness, making it impossible to fully write them off as the lunatics they’re initially perceived as.
It is a shame that - for a story with the central theme about beliefs - Shyamalan can’t fully trust his audience to believe everything that they’re seeing. An overuse of flashbacks in an attempt to rationalize character actions in the present comes off as a bit shallow and reductive. It’s a clear example of the faulty “rubber ducky” reasoning invented by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet, where a character will behave a certain way based solely on some past event, shredding any amount of nuance in favor of formulaic storytelling.
Thankfully, Shyamalan has recruited some fine actors to sell the unbelievable nature of the premise and characters. Bautista has made a lot of headlines about being taken seriously as an actor, and this performance decently proves that he’s putting his money where his mouth is. His hulking physicality instinctually inspires fear, but his soft-spoken demeanor contrasts that with interesting results. Groff and Aldridge have a good give-and-pull connection, pretty much making the flashbacks even more redundant as a way to explain their relationship.
Special praise should also be placed upon Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s jittery score, which takes until near the third act to fully come into its own and do much of the heavy lifting for selling suspense. And while it pales in comparison to his work with Robert Eggers, Jarin Blaschke’s (working with Lowell A. Meyer) claustrophobic camerawork works well with Shyamalan’s trademarked twisty movements.
Although Shyamalan will likely never return to the heights of his early days, works like Knock at the Cabin are proof that he still deserves a place within the theatrical landscape, especially as the horror/thriller genres continue to increase their importance in putting butts in seats. He even gets to deliver his signature twist, which is simply that he has made a good film that works well because of his traits as a filmmaker.