M Night Shyamalan has always been a terrific storyteller. Regardless of repeating his “big twist ending” one too many times or if he’s gone off the deep end with self-indulgence, good stories are always there at the start. It’s how he polishes and finishes them in his own particular way that either sells the film or tanks it. Now comes Knock at the Cabin, rewritten by Shyamalan from Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman’s earlier screenplay adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s novel, The Cabin at the End of the World. The novel itself is a Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Award winner, so we know the story’s there. Again, it’s how Shyamalan makes the story patently his that makes the difference between success and failure.
However, Knock at the Cabin sits in a precarious place as neither. As much as the trailers make it out to be a horror film, it winds up a narratively tight, horror-tinged, suspense-filled drama. The horror element of the story – four strangers with deadly weapons converge on a family staying in a cabin in the woods – is turned about and used as a framing device to nudge the real horror along. These four strangers, led by gentle giant Leonard (Dave Bautista), are there to ask the impossible: The family must make the terrible choice to kill one of their members in order to save the entire world from an oncoming apocalypse.
Leonard, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint) claim to be guided by stark visions of Armageddon and an unknown force showing them where to go. These four are not your average home invasion types; they’re just as scared – at times, even more so – than the family they’ve taken hostage. Even though lawyer Andrew (Ben Aldridge) tries to defend husband Eric (Jonathan Groff) and adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) as he’s tied to a chair, their disbelief and outright dismissal of what’s being said shields them from the abject terror each of the interlopers feels at not being able to save humanity.
And it’s not like this was some grand plan; these four have come from different backgrounds, jobs, and locations across the country to wind up at the cabin. Weirder still, they’re not there to hurt the family; even when Andrew and Eric try to fight them off, no move is made to actively retaliate beyond pushing one of them away. Also, it’s made abundantly clear that Andrew and Eric’s marriage is not any part of the reason why this is happening. (Although there is a small twist about one of the four that concerns Andrew and Eric.) They’re there to make sure the family makes the decision.
If the family should refuse? They’ll use the weapons… on one of the four themselves. And they don’t want to do that, because not only are they scared of dying, they know that with each of their deaths that occur, a major calamity will strike, killing thousands of people, culminating in the entirety of human life ending. Either Eric, Andrew, or Wen must die at either Eric, Andrew, or Wen’s hands. It cannot be a suicide, nor can one of the four murder one of them.
Motives, purposes, and personalities are clean and well-defined, and even late-stage revelations (lower-case “r,” mind you) make sense and provide more layers to help deepen their implications. Shyamalan has obtained heartbreakingly wonderful performances out of every last person – including D.C. theater’s own Ian Merrill Peakes in a pointedly taciturn role – to enthrall us and keep us teetering on this knife’s edge of a story. This ensemble is top-notch, with Dave Bautista leading the way with an absolutely stunning and searing portrayal of a man given one of humankind’s most gut-wrenching tasks.
But Shyamalan makes some strange choices that keep Knock at the Cabin from being a more horrifying and satisfying film. The violence that this film rides on – the expected death of one of the family members, each subsequent “sacrifice” the four have to make, and the disasters that result after one of the four dies – is kept at arm’s length, either being shown out of frame or on a TV screen. Gory closeups or Friday the 13th-esque bloody weapon impacts do not have any place here, as if to keep our minds attuned to the real horror of the world ending.
We don’t quite feel the punch of any of it because of how distanced Shyamalan wants us to be; it’s like we can see the movie fairly shuddering at the mere thought of going too far. One minute, we’re right in the middle of a gripping scene, and the very next second, we’re taken completely out of it by the camera positioning us away from the scene – in one of these traumatic scenes, the camera shifts from inside the cabin to pointing into a window from outside. And this decision translates into the very bedrock of the film, as if the cabin’s remote location is shielding us from the bigger picture. Not that we need slasher movie carnage to make us feel anything, but Shyamalan’s motif here seems to be found in building something up to gigantic proportions and then throwing the moment away.
Conversely, Knock at the Cabin excels at creating a miasma of unease and discomfort. Shot on film with anamorphic lenses providing angular distortion at the edges, Knock at the Cabin is gifted with visuals that enhance and tell the story just as much as any spoken word herein. This small cabin is made to feel like a cavernous hall, with even the imposing Dave Bautista looking somewhat dwarfed by it. Well, not when compared to the others in the room – directors of photography Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer make sure to show just how figuratively and literally large he is.
They also use unconventional framing to overtly highlight hierarchies and understanding; for instance, take note of how Andrew and Eric are often shown together low in the frame against their antagonists, either when weathering parental disapproval of their relationship or facing Leonard and his companions. Eye position is of curious note as well; note how some close-ups feature the eyes higher in the frame than others. These and other off-kilter visual cues cut massive swaths of discomfort in a film which makes us seek the comfort of the normal.
Is Knock at the Cabin a bad film? Unequivocally, no. M. Night Shyamalan still knows how to make our minds churn and our imaginations run amok, and he does so with a guarded restraint that asks us to fill in the blanks. Also, he can’t fail with the utterly amazing ensemble he has before his cameras. Does Knock at the Cabin feel like it’s missing something? Unequivocally, yes. It’s not about the level of violence, the implied gore, or the distinct lack of it; it’s about attempting to horrify us and leading us right up to the edge before pulling back and relieving us from the burden of what comes next, unwilling to go far enough to make things stick. It’s something that permeates the film from beginning to end through every scene, and while the film suffers for it, it’s not enough to dismiss Knock at the Cabin out of hand.
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