M. Night Shyamalan is an interesting, if understandably divisive, filmmaker. He does not shy away from bold or risky concepts, which sometimes pays off in big ways and sometimes leads to unintentional laughs. The one thing he can never be accused of is being boring. That stays true with his latest effort, the biblical-themed thriller Knock at the Cabin. In this case, he has made a solid little thriller, rooted in faith and love. It probably isn’t quite as tight as it needed to be, causing tension to wane a bit in its middle section and most of the characters aren’t fully able to take on personalities of their own, remaining largely symbolic. However, his execution fits the ideas at play well and he is still pretty good at coming up with endings that sort of feel just as much like beginnings. Shyamalan makes exciting movies when he gets out of his own way. He mostly does so this time.
Andrew and Eric are on vacation at an isolated cabin in the woods with their daughter when four strangers show up carrying weapons, demanding that Andrew and Eric make a terrible choice to save the world.
Shyamalan imparts to viewers that something is wrong in the very first scene. Knock at the Cabin (93 minutes, without the end credits) opens with Wen, Andrew and Eric’s soon-to-be-eight-year-old daughter, trying to catch grasshoppers in the woods. She is interrupted by the hulking Leonard, who says he is there to be her friend. They have a moderately innocent conversation (considering that it is between a child and a strange adult man), though the way Shyamalan frames them is unexpected.
They are close enough to each other that he could easily have had them filmed together in a medium shot. That would have made Leonard’s imposing body stand out even more in contrast and implied a potential threat. Instead, he shoots them both individually, in close-up, cutting back and forth, with a focus on their eyes. There is definitely something off about this man and Wen can feel it immediately. Shyamalan makes sure the audience shares her unease.
He uses surprising shot choices throughout. Some of them are disarming, some of them keep things offscreen that might have been more impactful if they were shown. Most of Knock at the Cabin consists of Leonard and his three colleagues attempting to persuade Andrew and Eric that the apocalypse is coming and only the two of them can prevent it. The early conversations are suitably tense and full of a desperation that makes it equally possible that these intruders are lying, telling the truth or delusional to the point that they are convinced they are telling the truth. The narrative tricks used to tease the answer are a large part of why this works as well as it does (the screenplay is based on the 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay).
An even larger reason this movie works is because of the performance of Dave Bautista as Leonard. This is clearly a man on a mission, who is menacing and willing to do whatever it takes to complete his task. Conversely, he is soft-spoken, kind under the circumstances and practically dripping with fear. He absolutely behaves like someone who feels totally justified in his actions, which makes him terrifying, but almost sympathetic. Bautista tends to play action heroes or goofs (or goofy action heroes), so this is certainly new from him. He really brings Leonard to life, moreso than the rest of the cast, and carries several challenging scenes that could have been tough to swallow without him.
Knock at the Cabin doesn’t reach the suspenseful highs of Shyamalan’s best (such as The Sixth Sense, Signs or Unbreakable). It also doesn’t contain the same narrative missteps of failures like The Happening or Old. It is merely a pretty good movie with an interesting premise, effective, if slightly uneven, execution and one very strong performance. It isn’t a masterpiece, yet is the work of a director who knows how to craft an entertaining thriller.
3¼ out of 5
Dave Bautista as Leonard
Jonathan Groff as Eric
Ben Aldridge as Andrew
Kristen Cui as Wen
Nikki Amuka-Bird as Sabrina
Abby Quinn as Adriane
Rupert Grint as Redmond
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman