Don’t Knock ‘Knock at the Cabin’

‘Knock at the Cabin’ is Shyamalan at his best — and his worst.

From a director whose record is hit or miss, “Knock at the Cabin” falls somewhere in between.

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan and based on the novel “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul G. Tremblay, the film follows two fathers and their daughter held captive by a band of zealots and their leader Leonard. 

Dave Bautista plays Leonard, who forces the trio to make a choice sacrifice a member of their family or face the end of the world. The more the family refuses to make a decision, the more calamities seemingly beget the planet. 

Why the apocalypse must happen, or why this family was chosen to prevent it, is answered only ambiguously. For a film so centered on its premise, the missing context leaves “Knock at the Cabin” to oftentimes lack motivation. 

Bautista (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Blade Runner 2049”) portrays the obsessive Leonard with an irregular kindness, often apologizing to fathers Eric and Andrew for what he believes he must do.

The relationship between Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) balances Leonard’s menacing presence with emotion. Groff (“Mindhunter,” “Hamilton”) and Aldridge (“Fleabag,” “Pennyworth”) play the couple lovingly. Flashbacks detail the pair’s struggles of adopting their 7-year-old daughter, Wen, and starting a family.

Each cast member excels in their performance, but the dialogue they’re given doesn’t always suffice. Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense,” “Split”) has become notorious for valuing plot above all else, resulting in many stilted exchanges. “Knock at the Cabin” is no different. 

Too often, characters speak either too simplistically or expositionally. Balance is rarely found, except for the Eric and Andrew flashbacks, which are easily the highlight of the film.

The story itself doesn’t fare much better. The hour and forty minute runtime, prevents the dense premise from being fully fleshed out. Being a thriller, answers are purposefully kept from the audience, but the few clues given don’t carry any subtlety. 

The film presents evidence that could support or debunk the apocalyptic threat, but instead of letting the audience decide, the cast plainly spells out what they see and why they think they’re right. 

Despite the clunky execution, the plot isn’t hollow. Commentary on media echo-chambers, religious extremism and homophobia are all addressed. It’s the awkward bluntness in how these topics are referred to that removes nuance.

Shyamalan brings his A-game with direction, regularly switching camera focus and perspective. The majority of the movie takes place in a cabin, set in the woods of New Hampshire. Despite the single setting, the constant shifts in camera and lighting make the cabin feel alive.

The evolving presentation coupled with the performances helps keep “Knock at the Cabin” from being a lesser movie. The uncomfortable closeups, smooth transitions and focus shifts build upon the tension already present from the opening premise.

The downside to the erratic direction is that it bolsters the story as often as it hampers. Repeatedly, characters relay crucial information only to be undermined by being barely in frame or distracted by another object in clearer view.

Don’t go into “Knock at the Cabin” expecting an “I see dead people” level twist. While the story takes several turns, its biggest shock is that it has no big shock. No “Unbreakable” post-credit scene, no plants being the bad guys. Everything told in the story plays a role in the end, even if it leaves more questions than answers regarding the ‘why’ as to how the events unfold.

“Knock at the Cabin,” at its best, is an intimate thriller with apocalyptic stakes. At its worst, it’s a mixed drama with hammy dialogue yet inventive direction.

“Knock at the Cabin,” rated R, is in theaters now.

Featured image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Brendan Parr

Brendan Parr