It may be surprising that the film I most thought of while watching M. Night Shyamalan's latest Knock at the Cabin was Mary Harron's adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, a bold and brash motion picture that on some level succeeded despite shying away from some of Ellis's most pointed imagery in a book I consider beloved while others consider "vile," "trash," or "one of the worst books I've ever read."
The Cabin at the End of the World, the Paul Tremblay novel upon which Knock at the Cabin is based presents a similar scenario for this surprisingly straightforward mystery/thriller. While Shyamalan has never quite been the twist-laden director that his reputation has testified, the truth is that Knock at the Cabin is a surprisingly straightforward motion picture less concerned with twists than chilling storytelling and creepy atmospheric imagery. However, those who are reporting that Knock at the Cabin is devoid of a twist are simply unfamiliar with its source material. While I certainly won't go into details here, suffice it to say that much as Harron did with American Psycho Shyamalan deviates from The Cabin at the End of the World in fairly profound ways. While I'm far from a Tremblay fan boy, The Cabin at the End of the World possesses a chaotic gutcheck for which Shyamalan doesn't even strive.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Truthfully, Knock at the Cabin serves up its own disturbia that is also far more palatable than if Shyamalan had remained faithful to Tremblay's work through the end. However, there are also key changes along the way, and especially toward film's end, that mute the film's final impact and overall effectiveness. Knock at the Cabin could have easily been upper-tier Shyamalan. Instead, it settles for a mid-range experience that I'd struggle to recommend.
Knock at the Cabin kicks off disturbingly enough centered around a rather horrifying home invasion disrupts the secluded woodsy vacation of Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their adorable daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). Led by second-grade teacher Leonard (Dave Bautista), this doomsday quartet of self-professed prophets includes Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint). It's not long before our prophets of doom present our loving family with a semingly impossible choice - One of these three must be willingly sacrificed by the other two or everyone in the world will perish.
For the first half of Knock at the Cabin, Shyamalan (co-writing with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman) remains largely faithful to Tremblay's source material. It's in the film's latter half that the deviations begin and it's also in the latter half that Knock at the Cabin begins lessening in impact despite a strong ensemble that brings life to the material even when the material disappoints.
Knock at the Cabin is certainly no Funny Games. While the mere presence of the towering Bautista may be inherently intimidating, there's a surprising tenderness to this quartet that I'd dare say humanizes them despite the actions they are taking and the beliefs they hold dear. As someone who's never quite been sold on Bautista, I have no hesitation in saying that Knock at the Cabin proves once and for all that the man can act and this may very well be his finest work to date. While there's not a soul in this quartet innocent of dastardly deeds, there's an underlying sense of remorse at the actions they feel they must take as believers in all that is unfolding. While I'm not quite convinced it's intentional, Shyamalan has painted a rather vivid portrait of life in a cult through the lens of the actual cultist.
Amuka-Bird is mesmerizing as a nurse who practically shudders inside when feeling called to bring others to harm. Grint's Redmond is perhaps the most volatile of the four, a man with a dark past and a constant aura of impulsivity. Abby Quinn's Adriane is impossibly polite, a woman leaning into her beliefs despite it appearing those very beliefs conflict with how she lives her life.
Unlike Shyamalan's last film Old, Knock at the Cabin feels grounded in honest relationships and a story that resonates as both larger than life yet incredibly possible and very of the now.
I've often marveled at how Paul Thomas Anderson can take seemingly ordinary actors and bring out their extraordinary. This is precisely what Shyamalan does with Bautista. Shyamalan turns the scenes involving Bautista into a master class of filmmaking, a building tension in the atmosphere gently sliced through by Bautista's almost genteel volatility. It's truly a joy to watch.
For the first half of Knock at the Cabin, maybe a bit further, I found myself immersed in this story and in the world Shyamalan was creating. As Eric and Andrew wrestle with whether this presented scenario is unfathomably true or the result of delusional zealots, we the audience also wrestle and it's genuinely suspenseful and psychologically exhausting. However, once Knock at the Cabin begins to detour from Tremblay's source material the story begins to dissolve and become something a whole lot less interesting.
The end result, I suppose, is that Shyamalan avoids the grimness of Tremblay's novel while also shying away from your usual Hollywood-style happily ever after ending. It's something else here entirely, an ending that may or may not satisfy you depending upon your own lens.
Knock at the Cabin ends up leaning into Shyamalan's Roman Catholic educational background, though the filmmaker has openly professed to being more of an agnostic these days. This is far from the first film in which Shyamalan has tackled issues of faith and belief - heck, his very first film Wide Awake was actually set in a Catholic school. However, Knock at the Cabin ends up feeling like an agnostic's Cliff's Notes version of eschatology painted by someone who skipped more than a few classes. The latter half of Knock at the Cabin is jarringly less satisfying than its predecessor and what began with the promise of Shyamalan's return to cinematic greatness simply reminds us that he remains one of contemporary cinema's most frustratingly inconsistent filmmakers.
Cinematography by Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer is more brooding and atmospheric than Bautista, no small accomplishment, and Herdís Stefánsdóttir's original score is simply extraordinary. While Knock at the Cabin may not ultimately prove wholly satisfying, after the abysmal Old this modestly budgeted $20 million motion picture is satisfying enough that one can only hope that Shyamalan opens himself to further collaborations in the future.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic