Principal Cast : Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Dave Bautista, Kristen Cui, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint.
Synopsis: While vacationing at a remote cabin, a young girl and her two fathers are taken hostage by four armed strangers who demand that the family make an unthinkable choice to avert the apocalypse.
There’s a strong case to be made that M Night Shyamalan, wunderkind director of The Sixth Sense, The Visit and Old, is at his absolute best when capturing human terror through the lens of isolation and the unknown. Although a severe, nearly career-ending form slump several years back has since given way to a resurgence in the director’s insatiable puzzle-box style and rising audience appeal, there’s always the sense that people are just waiting for him to trip up again with his latest projects, much to my chagrin. Shyamalan, who directs from his own co-screenplay credit with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, off an original novel by author Paul Tremblay, brings to bear his incredible ability to build dread and nail-shredding tension from what appears to be the simplest of stories, although with Knock At The Cabin the plot is far from simple; the result is a gripping, at times frustratingly shallow depiction of a global apocalypse that leaves far too many questions unanswered than it offers resolution, but is still quite a thrilling experience.
Warning: this review of Knock At The Cabin contains significant spoilers for the movie. If possible, skip to the end, read the final paragraph, and then go back and watch the film.
Set in a remote Pennsylvanian forest, dual fathers Eric (Jonathan Groff – Frozen, Hamilton) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge – The Railway Man) are on a family getaway with their young adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), when their idyll is interrupted by four dissimilar interlopers, led by the enormously intimidating Leonard (Dave Bautista). The restrain Eric and Andrew and proceed to proclaim that one of them must make the ultimate sacrifice before the world ends, lest they be the last human beings left alive. Leonard, together with the redneck Redmond (Rupert Grint – the Harry Potter franchise), the fearful Adriane (Abby Quinn – Little Women) and maternal Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird – Jupiter Ascending), show the family a series of terrifying global catastrophes, proving that the world really is soon to come to an end, although Eric and Andrew initially disbelieve them. Realising their peril, the fathers try to escape and subdue their captors, who rather than find anger seem to be resigned to their fate as, one by one, they murder each other to force Eric and Andrew’s hand.
When you sit back and consider just how many of Shyamalan’s films sit within a similar context of motivation, Knock At The Cabin feels like the director just refusing to escape his own typecasting. Looking at Signs, The Village, The Visit and more recently Old, many of his films deal with people living or surviving in an isolated setting, having to deal with some mysterious external unknown or terrifying force, and all of the aforementioned films have to a large degree succeeded in tantalising us with the inherent desire to understand what’s going on. In Signs, it was aliens. In The Village, it was some terrifying monster lurking at the fringes of a forest, and in Old it was a group of people stuck on a tropical beach and ageing out at impossible speed. Now, in Knock At The Cabin, Shyamalan takes us into the beautiful wooded landscapes of rural Pennsylvania, where an impossible decision lies waiting for a pair of dudes just trying to raise their daughter. Destiny comes a knocking; in the shape of Dave Bautista, it’s a menacing destiny indeed. Yet again, however, Shyamalan taps into our natural fear of being unable to escape, of just how precarious our humanity is when away from the collective and forced to recognise our darkest nightmares.
If nothing else, Bautista – who hammed it up beautifully in Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion once again proves he’s more than just an ex-wrestler trying to make it in the pop-culture entertainment world. As it turns out, the dude is starting to deliver some pretty decent turns in dramatic acting, although to be fair these kinds of films are sprinkled between the blockbusting Guardians of The Galaxy films and dreck like Stuber and Escape Plan 2: The Extractors. When he has a chance to flex his acting chops, we get some really decent performances in the likes of Blade Runner 2049, Dune, and even Zack Snyder’s polarising Army of The Dead. As Leonard, he’s all intimidation and resignation rolled into a character trying to ensure the world is saved from annihilation, and as the pivotal instigator in this narrative he works well as a hulking foil to the less physically inclined Jonathan Groff or Ben Aldridge, both of whom are equally excellent in their roles as Wen’s fathers. Sadly, the same can’t be said of Rupert Grint’s short-lived Redmond, nor Abby Quinn’s Adriane, neither of whom have any real chance to develop their characters before being summarily offed, although the fourth member of the home invasion quartet, Nikki Amuka-Bird, accommodates her mournful character with a degree of complexity that makes her fate one of the film’s more shocking acts. Lastly, but by no means leastly, Shyamalan has unearthed yet another wonderful child actor in Kristen Cui, as the young Wen, a performer wise and confident beyond her years and easily on the same emotional level as Bautista, Groff or Aldridge.
A lot of the plot mechanics of Knock At The Cabin rely solely on the performances, alleviated from shouldering the entire film thanks to some prominent news broadcasts shown on the cabin’s quite large flatscreen television. The effects of the various earthquakes, tsunamis and sudden aircraft crashes are given a distinctly horrific Shyamalan gut-punch, as the truth about their situation dawns on Eric and Andrew and their decision to sacrifice one of themselves for the greater good – a polarising decision at the best of times – is brought to the forefront. Sadly, I don’t think the impact of this decision is as powerful as Shyamalan and his writing team might have intended, and the resolution thereof is actually one of the weaker elements of the film, but for the vast majority of the time the rising tension and genuine fear not only from the family threesome but also the invaders themselves will keep you on the edge of your seat. Shyamalan sprinkles in just enough mystery pixie-dust red herrings and subtleties to maintain the participatory tone the film commences with, although – as many claimed with The Village and to some degree Old – the ending isn’t the strongest.
That said, Knock At The Cabin is still a frightfully inventive take on the global catastrophe narrative that it will take you on a worthwhile rollercoaster journey. The film makes some significant changes from the original novel, so those expecting the film to plot its course in one direction will find themselves pleasantly surprised, and at a respectable tick over 90 minutes never feels like it outstays its welcome. Led by Bautista’s solid work on the screen, enabled by some satisfying Groff and diverting Aldridge, and a surprisingly decent (if all too short) antagonistic turn from Rupert Grint, Knock At The Cabin is a tight little pulse pounder that will deliver just enough thrills and more than enough chills to satisfy the most demanding viewer. As a fan of Shyamalan’s career (with only a few exceptions) I can honestly say this is right up there as one of his better projects. Knock knock, indeed.