Oh, great. This guy again.
We’ve seen enough of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies to know the deal by now: It’s not about the fascinating premise, it’s about how he fucks up the execution. For better or worse, Shyamalan’s career has been defined by how he ends his movies. Literally nothing matters but whether and how badly he botches the landing. And with Knock at the Cabin, Shyamalan based his entire film around what’s basically a Trolley Problem writ large.
A plot that must build up to a climactic moment when the characters must inevitably choose whether to kill one person or let the entire world burn. And it’s in the hands of Manoj Nelliyattu Goddamn Shyamalan. Okay, fine, what have we got?
The titular cabin is a rental somewhere out in the remote woods of Pennsylvania. (It’s a Shyamalan flick, of course the film is set in Pennsylvania.) This naturally means that cell service doesn’t work, and the phone lines are cut early on. The current renters are Eric and Andrew (respectively played by Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge), a gay married couple raising an 8-year-old adoptive daughter (Wen, played by newcomer Kristen Cui). Their vacation is interrupted by four strangers wielding bizarre homemade weapons.
- Leonard (Dave Bautista) is a gentle soft-spoken giant, a grade school teacher who runs his local after-school sports program.
- Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a matronly ER trauma nurse.
- Adriane (Abby Bird) is a neurotic line cook who works at a Mexican restaurant.
- Redmond (Welcome back, Rupert Grint!) is a short-tempered ex-con bouncing between odd jobs.
These four strangers force their way into the rental cabin, tie up Eric and Andrew, and present them with a choice that’s wildly impossible for so many reasons: Either Eric, Andrew, or Wen must be murdered by the other two. Suicide isn’t an option, and the Four can’t hurt them any more than they have to, one has to kill another and it has to be a deliberate choice. If they refuse to make the choice, then millions of people will die. If they refuse four times, the whole world will be destroyed.
Why do they get four chances? Well, there’s a reason, but I think it best if I keep from spoiling that here.
Let’s start with the obvious question: Why these people? Who or what chose this particular family to make this particular sacrifice, and toward what end? Why did these four strangers from all over the country meet up at this particular place on such a batshit crazy mission?
None of this is ever explained. And yet it still works. It feeds into the overarching theme of disasters. Any one of us at any time could be caught up in a tsunami or an earthquake or a lethal pandemic, and not for anything we did or could’ve done. Shit just happens, life can be unfair like that, and all that matters is what we choose to do about it.
(Side note: One of the disasters portrayed in this film is the Great Cascadia Quake, which has been foretold and feared throughout the Pacific Northwest for the past couple decades. Thus we get a dramatization of Haystack Rock and Cannon Beach getting wiped out and hundreds of people drowning in a giant CGI tsunami, just as so many Oregonians have seen in their nightmares for several years. Thanks a pantload for that, Mr. Shyamalan.)
Even more than that, what really sells this whole crazy premise is our four antagonists. They make it perfectly clear that none of them are doing this because they want to. Indeed, all four of them visibly hate that this is happening, they’d give anything to get this all over with, and they know for an unshakeable fact that everything they’re saying is true.
All four of them have seen inexplicable visions of what’s coming, and they know those visions are all true. I’m not just talking about belief or faith, and I’m talking about something that goes deeper than bone — all four of these people KNOW with every last particle of their being that the entire human race will go extinct if this poor unsuspecting family of three doesn’t kill one of their own.
Contrast that with Andrew, a gay married man who’s been a tragic survivor of homophobic attacks and slurs. Here’s a bitter jaded man with a persecution complex who’s got every reason to believe that this family was targeted as a hate crime, even though none of the Four show any sign of bigotry or prejudice. He’s a rationalist looking for any excuse to brush off the Four as a deluded suicide cult who’s gone to all this trouble staging fake disasters and hoax news reports on the TV.
More importantly, Andrew is a human rights attorney who’s seen the worst of what humanity can offer. This is a man so desensitized to cable news sensationalism and mass atrocities that he can watch millions of people die in an instant and brush it off as just another news day. Even worse, Andrew has seen so much evil in the world and been traumatized by so much of it, he couldn’t give any less of a fuck if the world ends.
Andrew doesn’t care about anyone in the world except for Eric and Wen. The Four care about every last one of the 7 billion+ people on this planet, feeling their death and suffering as acutely as if it was their own. The fate of the world has been entrusted to someone who wouldn’t lift a finger to save it, even if it means Andrew and his loved ones will eventually die in the apocalypse with everyone else. Meanwhile, the Four are desperately trying to save the world by convincing Andrew and Eric why they should care enough about the rest of humanity that they’d make such a sacrifice to save it.
Come to think of it, who’s really the bad guy here? Say what you will about the Four, but they’re victims of this every bit as much as Eric/Andrew/Wen, and there’s no point in shooting the messengers. If anything, I’d argue it’s the unknowable higher power that orchestrated this whole absurdly cruel premise. Even so, the denouement shows how disasters bring people together. Triumph is borne of struggle, and the best of humanity can often be seen in the work of grieving and rebuilding and reconnecting after some huge natural catastrophe. Though I’m pretty sure that same point could’ve been made without killing hundreds of millions of people all over the world, just saying.
With all of that said, let’s get back to the initial question: How does Shyamalan screw up the ending? Well, I can only say that the climax sucks. Everything before that point is nicely engaging, everything after that is sweetly uplifting, but the climax itself is awful. How can I elaborate further without getting too deeply into spoilers?
To start with, you may have noticed that I’ve talked a lot about Andrew and not so much about Eric or Wen. It bears mentioning that while Wen is endearingly precocious and she does her best to be proactive in her own rescue, she’s still an 8-year-old girl in a strange house full of adults, so there’s only so much that she can say and do. As for Eric, Jonathan Groff is more than capable of making scraps into a meal and he turns in a dynamic performance even when the script gives him so little. That said, Eric spends most of the film incapacitated with a concussion, and his internal conflict with his closed-minded homophobic upbringing is mostly kept on the back burner if at all.
At its heart and core, the plot hinges around this family of three choosing whether they would rather kill one of their own or die together in the apocalypse. That choice rings a bit hollow when Andrew is the only one of them with any real agency up to that point — it honestly feels like the other two should’ve had more of a say in the deliberating process. Moreover, a lot of the final solution relates to Eric’s backstory, which was too undercooked for the climax to register properly.
Unless the climax was supposed to make the film some kind of religious allegory. In which case, that would make this whole thing laughably pretentious. Though I’m certainly tickled by the notion of a film with prominent LGBTQ+ representation and themes twisted into a religious allegory, that would’ve been deliciously subversive if it had worked.
Another critical error is in the camerawork. Specifically, Shyamalan freaking LOVES his extreme close-up shots of characters staring directly into the camera. From first to last, the whole film is lousy with characters talking directly into the camera while their head takes up the entire frame. It’s unnerving and unsettling, and not in a way that benefits the tone or the scene.
Before we wrap up, it’s worth taking a bit more time to emphasize that this whole cast is aces. Rupert Grint did a fine job so far out of his established wheelhouse, and I’d love to see what he can do with more work now that Ron Weasley was a good long hiatus ago. Nikki Amuka-Bird and Abby Quinn both did admirably well as sweet and lovely people capable of terrible things when pushed far enough against their wills.
But of course it’s Dave Bautista who’s the MVP here. He perfectly embodies the Four as a whole: a genuinely nice and compassionate person who’s visibly capable of terrible violence if pressed hard enough. Every single one of the Four perfectly sells the characters’ stone-cold certainty in their faith, but Bautista was given the task of selling this batshit premise to the audience and the other characters, and he does an impeccable job of it.
I’ve already said that Jonathan Groff does a great job with what little he gets. Kristen Cui turns in fine work, though it certainly helps that she got Bautista for a scene partner. The film is heavily imbalanced in Andrew’s favor, as so much of the film is about his efforts at taking control of the situation, but Ben Aldridge makes the most of that advantage and it was genuinely compelling to watch Aldridge play that moral and psychological downward spiral.
Knock at the Cabin is a tough one to gauge. I hate the extreme close-up shots, but I love the performances. The climax is uninspired crap, but the denouement rebounds nicely. The character development is uneven, but the lesser-developed characters don’t drag everything else down in any significant way and the two or three fully-developed characters are fascinating to watch.
In the end, the film successfully took a flatly ridiculous premise and spun it into an insightful meditation on faith and disasters and what about humanity (if anything) is worth saving. And at least this film didn’t horribly botch the landing like some other Shyamalan efforts I could mention. Taking all of that into account, and considering the slowdown we’re currently in between Avatar: The Way of Water and Ant-Man: Quantumania, I’d say the film is worth a tenuous recommendation.