They once called him the new Spielberg, but after a long lull in his career—during which he was branded a consistent failure—M. Night Shyamalan rose from the ashes in 2015, stealing the title of Hollywood’s most gleefully schlocky big-budget director. From found footage thriller The Visit, to a pair of superhero horror films in Split and Glass, to the atmospheric domestic chills of Servant on Apple TV, he began shaking off the image he was once branded with, in the wake of earlier hits like The Sixth Sense and Signs: that of a prestige director whose sheen relied largely on twists and turns (to varying degrees of success). The themes of those early works still follow him; his new movie, Knock at the Cabin, is an unequivocally spiritual tale about the horrifying nature of visions, but it also makes for a delightful double feature with Old, his most recent and perhaps most visually eccentric work. The jagged, off-kilter framing in both films eventually gives way to surprising gentleness, and in this case, a remarkable performance from Filipino American wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista.
Despite its occasionally shaky construction, Knock at the Cabin is, at its core, about seeing the value in humanity, just as much as it is about seeing death and destruction everywhere you look—a prescient topic in the age of doom-and-gloom all over the news and social media. A home invasion thriller that soon implodes into a chamber-piece, the movie very quickly reveals itself to be an anti-Shyamalan film (or at least, the opposite of Shyamalan in the ’90s and early 2000s), in that the “big twist” is that there simply isn’t one. The movie, like its quartet of villains, is exactly what it says it is.
The movie very quickly reveals itself to be an anti-Shyamalan film...in that the “big twist” is that there simply isn’t one. The movie, like its quartet of villains, is exactly what it says it is.
Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui)—who they adopted from East Asia—take a family trip to a rural cabin in Pennsylvania, but their vacation soon turns twisted when a doomsday cult with makeshift weapons barges in and attacks them, before tying them to chairs. Only, the invaders don’t behave like they want to hurt them; three of the four attackers are also weirdly nice and forthcoming about the whole endeavor, and they seem genuinely conflicted. There’s Leonard (Bautista), a hulking, bespectacled basketball coach, whose harsh, matter-of-fact whispers are off-set by his politeness, and his compulsion to ensure that his hostages know he’s a good person at heart. Alongside him stands Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a nurse who immediately and tenderly treats Eric’s concussion, moments after causing it, and Adriane (Abby Quinn), an ordinary line cook whose wide-eyed enthusiasm for life becomes downright creepy when it becomes mixed in with the group’s ramblings about their premonitions of death.
Rounding out these strange antagonists—each from a different corner of the United States—is Redmond (Rupert Grint), a rough-and-tumble Bostonian, and the only one of the four who wants to cut to the chase. They claim that they were brought together by shared psychic visions of an apocalypse, involving tidal waves, a new plague, and planes falling out of the sky. The only way to prevent this from happening, they say, is if Eric, Andrew and Wen willingly sacrifice one of their own. It sounds patently absurd, and Andrew tries to compel them to seek help. But what happens when some of their claims appear to come true? And worse yet, what happens when Eric starts to believe them?
The thriller equivalent of doomscrolling, Knock at the Cabin taps into the oppressive omnipresence of modern cataclysmic events, the kind these characters eventually watch via news broadcasts on the cabin’s flatscreen. A tsunami. A novel virus. Even mechanical aviation failures, all of which ride the line between coincidence, and the group’s premonitions coming to fruition, bringing Eric and Andrew one small step closer to a potentially painful decision.
Through flashbacks, Shyamalan reveals key moments from Eric and Andrew’s past, which help shape their contrasting outlooks. Andrew is bitter and paranoid, while the semi-religious Eric maintains a more chipper outlook, which most certainly finds itself challenged in the present. However, his religious beliefs also make it slightly easier for him to at least consider that Leonard and company may not be lying. That he’s also concussed certainly complicates matters, especially when he claims to see a figure in the light streaming through the cabin’s window; one of the symptoms of concussions is increased photosensitivity after all, but enough by way of happenstance is thrown the couple’s (and the audience’s) way that doubt and belief soon begin to enter a footrace.
The novel on which the movie was based, Paul G. Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, is far less explicit about what Eric does or does not see, but Shyamalan (along with co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman) makes a number of key departures that not only add to the ambiguity, but bring the story in line with his career-long thematic fixations about belief as both vice and virtue. His flashbacks, though they often rob the movie of ongoing tension, are aimed at establishing conflicting notions of romanticism and realism—of existentialism and nihilism—each leading to the question of whether or not humanity even deserves to be saved.
Right from the word go, Shyamalan’s lens investigates this very conflict, in an opening scene where Leonard emerges from the woods and helps Wen catch grasshoppers. We know nothing about each character when the camera begins tilting on its axis, as it gets closer and closer, probing at whether Bautista’s calculated demeanor conceals light or darkness. The film’s action scenes may often crumble into slapstick silliness, but by placing Bautista at its center, Shyamalan ensures both a curious allure when he delivers menacing dialogue, and a magnetic empathy in his silent moments.
Much like he did in Old, Shyamalan (courtesy of cinematographer Jarin Blashcke) indulges in the same unconventional framing, where faces and body parts are obscured by the edges of the screen, leading to an amusing tension as you try to figure out where exactly your focus should fall. It’s like paranoia made manifest, and it keeps the movie feeling unpredictable, even after it’s laid all its cards on the table.
With a mischievous glimmer in his eye (and one very ridiculous, drawn-out director cameo), Shyamalan once again bucks the self-seriousness of his early works, which had even led him to being the focus of a hoax documentary about his own alleged supernatural abilities, around the time he made The Village, a film about a cult-like community. Cults and deeply held beliefs have always been at the core of Shyamalan’s work, and with his own faux documentary having been aimed at creating a cult-like allure around himself, it’s especially interesting to trace the trajectory of his career leading up to Knock at the Cabin. The line between belief and obsession is razor thin, and many of Shyamalan’s recent characters have dealt with this same dilemma.
In his stories, any idea can be corrupted—from superheroes to close-knit communities—just like any idea can be spiritually liberating. In Knock at the Cabin, the villains initially seem like the ones who need to learn the difference, but ultimately, its protagonists are the ones most in need of some sort of spiritual liberation in order to untangle this ethical web. They’re normal, everyday people trying their best to figure out how to navigate a world (and a future) filled with atrocities. The coming year in cinema will undoubtedly produce better, more thrilling films, but few of them are likely to be as prescient, or as thematically cogent.
Published on February 4, 2023