‘Knock at the Cabin’ Is M. Night Shyamalan’s Bleakest Movie Yet – Rolling Stone – NewsAlarts
Dear M. Night Shyamalan: Are you doing ok?
We completely sympathize if you’re not. Look, the last seven or so years have not been easy for anyone, and no one would blame the Oscar-nominated filmmaker if, like so many of us, his faith in humanity has taken a few massive body blows. It felt as though we were seeing the worst aspects of our fellow citizens on daily display, from the mainstreaming of hatemongering to mask-inspired divisiveness to any collective, non-partisan notion of reality becoming an impossibility. Empathy appeared to be M.I.A. The across-the-board message to one’s fellow man seemed to be: go fuck yourself.
This social animosity, combined with plagues and attempted presidential coups and [cue worst-of-show super-cut from 2016 to the present], may have left Shyamalan a little bummed about our prospects as a species. That’s the easiest explanation for the aura hovering around Knock at the Cabin, his latest potboiler-cum-philosophical genre puzzle and one of the more pessimistic entries on his resume. Having established himself as a modern-day amalgamation of Rod Serling, Steven Spielberg and O. Henry, the Philly-based writer-director remains one of the few recognizable above-the-title auteur names left in an I.P.-saturated landscape. His “brand” has always been thrills, chills and, yes, narrative twists. Bitter cynicism isn’t usually part of the package, however, which makes this adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World a little surprising. Lots of movies focus on what-if apocalypses in the name of blockbuster entertainment. This one has a mustier, eau de end-of-days scent wafting off it like whiskey vapors after a bender.
It begins, as so many horror movies do, with a cabin in the woods. This rural Airbnb rental sits on the edge of a lake, in a ridiculously bucolic setting — a Garden of Eden by any other name. It’s being rented for the weekend by Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), along with their eight-year old daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui). The married couple is hanging out on the back deck, sipping wine. The kid is collecting grasshoppers out front, scooping them into a habitat in a jar. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she tells her trapped insect friends. “I just want to learn from you a bit.” In terms of hide-in-plain-sight filmmaker theses, you could do a lot worse.
Then a figure appears out of nowhere, casually walking toward Wen. This gentle, tattooed giant is Leonard (Dave Bautista). He seems kind, if a little wary; Wen wonders why he keeps looking back into the woods, scanning the trees for… something. Still, Leonard isn’t giving off much of a stranger-danger vibe until three more people (Rupert Grint, Abby Quinn and Nikki Amuka-Bird) show up. They’re all carrying what looks like medieval weaponry. Also, they’d like to speak with “Daddy Eric” and “Daddy Andrew,” please. The quartet has a job to do that involves the family. It’s not a pleasant one.
What follows is one part home invasion, one part divine intervention. After forcing their way into the house and tying up the two men, Leonard and company explain their presence. All four of them have been having the exact same visions: natural disasters, ravaging diseases, giant things falling from the heavens, fires that scorch the earth. No one is sure who’s responsible for planting these collective copycat nightmares in their brains — God? Satan? Elon Musk? — but all four of them have been brought together by some cosmic force. All four of them have seen this specific cabin in their dreams. And all four of them have been sent here to inform its occupants that one member of the family must be sacrificed in order to save every person on the planet. Eric, Andrew and Wen must decide which one of them has to die. Otherwise, it’s farewell to the human race in toto.
It’s the end of the world, in other words, and Shyamalan is very much not feeling fine. Knock at the Cabin initially presents itself as a creepy, dread-filled comment on fanaticism — what happens when belief not only trumps rationality and reason but tips into the homicidal. These four random strangers have had something activated in them that’s turned them into holy warriors, and it’s not a stretch to say that the concept of seeing friends, neighbors and family members fall sway to extreme ideology is something that’s familiar to most of us by now. The longer the decision is put off, the bigger the consequences: One of the foursome will release a “plague” upon the global population every time they get turned down. “Humanity has been judged,” they intone. It sounds like a scare tactic, until they turn on the news and footage of tsunamis and plummeting planes play across the screen. Are they genuine harbingers of doom? Could this family really be the last hope for us all?
That’s when Shyamalan begins to switch tactics and tone, at which point viewers find themselves not only asking, “What would I do in that situation?” but also: “Is humanity worth saving?” And: “Are the lives of the few, especially if the ‘few’ are my flesh and blood, worth more to me than the lives of the many?” Scattered flashbacks and glimpses of Eric and Andrew’s relationship, which detail a deep love forged in the face of parental disapproval, a hate crime and jumping through hoops to adopt a baby, make a strong case that family comes first. Andrew takes the side of practicality: This is a different flavor of the same ol’ prejudicial bullshit, it doesn’t make any logical sense, the four have used prior knowledge of unrelated catastrophes to retrofit notions of an apocalypse now. Eric finds himself standing up for a greater good: What is parenthood but sacrifice? And why wouldn’t you risk your well-being to ensure your child has a future?
You can almost hear the director, along with his co-screenwriters Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, engaging in philosophical debates — not among themselves so much as in their own heads, letting their personal, contradictory natures battle it out one jump scare and catch-and-release pursuit at a time. The fact that Shyamalan seems to be working out some issues onscreen doesn’t stop him from crafting a thriller, and one which goes about its job with steady determination in Cabin’s cryptic, superior first half. Whether you love his work or feel like he peaked when Haley Joel Osment saw dead people, you can’t deny that Shyamalan knows how to use the frame beautifully, and has a knack for deploying effective close-ups, zoom-in-dolly-out shots, and oft-kilter camera moves with a sharpshooter’s efficiency. He’s a capital-F Filmmaker, who understands the manipulative mechanics of telling a story with sound and vision. And while this may be a spoiler, Shyamalan doesn’t feel the need to rely on a signature there-goeth-the-rug-underneath-you twist this time out. He’s too busy wrestling with his own thoughts on a world gone insensitive and mad.
Whether Knock at the Cabin loses steam in its second half will vary from viewer to viewer; as with almost everything about this film, there are on-the-one-hand arguments to be laid out for and against how the movie plays up to its endgame. Even if you’re left muttering “Hmm…” as the movie lumbers toward Bethlehem (or rather, Bethlehem, PA), you’ve still got a handful of indelible images and performances that range from reliably solid as usual (Groff, Amuka-Bird) to level-up exceptional (notably Kristen Cui, a wonderful child actor, and Bautista — this earns him leading-man status). What we can say is that Shyamalan wrestles his existential crisis to a standstill, just enough to let a few rays of sunshine pierce the darkness. It’s one’s faith in the folks who share this big blue marble, not fanaticism, that’s potentially on the chopping block here. The jury’s still out on whether the human race has enough humanity left to keep it together. But, Shyamalan suggests, that doesn’t mean you can give up hope.