KNOCK AT THE CABIN gets Shyamalan closer to his original appeal

Introduction

Hello kings and kweens. This is a review for Knock at the Cabin. Knock at the Cabin is a thriller film directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan has had a rollercoaster of a career so it’s hard to predict what he’s capable of these days but I thought this movie was… ok. It may be the most ok movie I’ve ever seen. It’s got some interesting stuff going on. I want to talk about how this movie is essentially about the power of belief and I want to talk about some of its performances.

Background

M. Night Shyamalan was at one point in time considered the successor to Steven Spielberg. He was the hottest upcoming director in the 90s when he directed The Sixth Sense — a psychological horror film that intertwined genuinely disturbing subject material with surprisingly sincere family drama. Shyamalan wrote and directed that film and his accomplishments in it cannot be understated. He got great performances from very different actors across Hayley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, and Toni Collette. He managed the complex tone of the film that weaved horror themes, touching family moments, and comedic elements. It also helps he created one of the most memorable plot twists in narrative storytelling. These were the elements that made Shyamalan a household name. His dexterity in handling multiple tones made him seem like a wunderkid much like Spielberg. Shyamalan went on to make Unbreakable and Signs. Both of these movies feature similar complex tones, family conflict, and — of course — memorable plot twists. With these projects the Shyamalan magic continued but there was a growing sense he was a little one note. After these movies it seemed the concern for novelty weighed heavily on Shyamalan’s output and he became obsessed with gimmicks and that shallowness became evident in his work.

Shyamalan has attributed his films’ decline in quality to his hesitation to be pigeonholed as a director who only made thrillers. I don’t know if I buy that. The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening were all thrillers and notably some of Shyamalan’s worst work. It seemed like each new project was innovating specifically in its ability to be completely terrible. Later he left the thriller genre with After Earth and The Last Airbender and these movies were notably bad even compared to his string of failures that preceded them. The Last Airbender is now known as one of the worst films ever made. It may be true Shyamalan’s ventures outside of his home genre haven’t gone well but it’s not like he was firing on all cylinders before then either. I think he’s been too obsessed with gimmicks that lack the personal connection from his earlier work. There’s no better example of this then Glass — a sequel to Unbreakable and Split which has all the whacky nonsense of his later films with none of the heart.

Shyamalan’s movies haven’t been getting notably better but they have gotten notably more profitable. The Visit, Split, and Old all made more than ten times their original budget so he’s found a niche in the industry to continue making whatever he wants. Those projects tend to be thrillers, which Shyamalan has accepted as his one-note style. I think this might be a good thing because it means Shyamalan can be in his comfort zone. If he’s not thinking about his movie being a success it may lead him to have a stronger attachment to his films and subsequently higher quality as well. That’s my hope for his career and we may have gotten a glimpse of that in Knock at the Cabin.


Premise

Knock at the Cabin’s premise is succinctly stated in its trailer. A family vacationing in a cabin are beset by four intruders who tie them up and tell them they have to sacrifice someone in their family in order to prevent the impending apocalypse. The family doesn’t believe the apocalypse is happening or that a sacrifice would change anything about it, so there’s a back-and-forth of rationalizing and providing evidence for something that can’t really be proved. Knock at the Cabin is based on a book called The Cabin at the End of the World but it is worth noting the film makes a two significant changes from the book which arguably alters the entire point of the story.

Power of Belief

Knock at the Cabin is essentially about the power of belief and I’m glad I watched this movie because after seeing it I realized most of Shyamalan’s work is about this theme. The Sixth Sense asks if this kid really can see dead people. Unbreakable asks if this father is truly invincible. Signs asks if there is some cosmic coincidence to your life circumstance that prepared you for a specific moment. All the Shyamalan movies that are worth watching are anchored by this conflict. Can you believe what’s in front of you? Will you let yourself believe in it? What would it mean if it were true? I find it a fascinating recurring question in his work because this theme is very obviously adjacent to religion but Shyamalan has never applied it to a religious context. At least, not until now.

Knock at the Cabin is the closest Shyamalan gets to making a movie about religious belief because the antagonists are fanatics who believe it’s the end of the world. There are certainly plenty of religious fanatics who believe that in real life. The protagonists of this story are two gay men who have an adoptive daughter which is another way of saying they are the perfect representation of individuals outside of religiosity. Unsurprisingly, one of these men is a lawyer who relies on logical thinking and science-based evidence. He’s naturally the one refuting the claims of the fanatics in this film and the conflict between his character and the intruders is the essential draw of this film. It is rationality arguing against faith.

I had a personal connection to this film because I found myself at the center point of the two conflicting entities. I’ve never considered myself religious. I have difficulty understanding the concept of faith or belief. I naturally gravitate to rational reasoning and logical arguments. While all that may be true, I have an unshakable sense that these things are not the key to understanding the universe. It feels like something is missing and there are times where things click in a way that can’t be explained by ideas born out of the enlightenment. Knock at the Cabin tries to get you to that point of doubt and uncertainty and I think it is successful at times.

There is a scene where the intruders turn on the news to show the horrific events happening around the world due to the protagonists’ inaction. The one that struck me the most was the first one where a cellphone recording shows a massive tsunami hitting the shore of a city. I thought the depiction of this footage was eerily accurate. I’m used to seeing movies depict calamitous events with bystanders running and screaming “oh the humanity!” It’s always an exaggerated depiction. Now that we’ve lived with cameras in everyone’s pocket for decades we know that’s not actually what that scene looks like. As depicted in the movie, people don’t scream and run in the face of terror — they stare silently at their undeniable and imminent doom. The unsettling quietness present while watching people get annihilated by a wall of water allows for the doubt you may have about the intruders’ claims to seep into your consciousness. You’re watching something horrific take place — so horrific you can’t believe it — and a whisper enters your brain “maybe they’re right.” Maybe this is the end of the world. For that one scene, it felt like I was watching that tsunami hit the shore. I felt the fear the movie wanted me to feel. That might be because of the movie or maybe it’s because the apocalypse is pretty believable these days. Either way, Knock at the Cabin does a great job portraying the main characters struggling with holding onto their rational worldview and squaring it with the unbelievable devastation happening before their eyes.

If that sounds interesting to you, that is the appeal of Knock at the Cabin.

Performances

The other thing Knock at the Cabin has going for it is the performances from its cast. Shyamalan has reliably gotten great performances out of his actors — although there are obvious exceptions — so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. The most notably is Dave Bautista who continues to have a shockingly prosperous acting career. His character is the leader of the fanatics and it feels like a role tailor-made for him. He has an obvious physicality that is threatening but beyond how he looks, every creative decision reinforces his character’s gentle nature. I thought it was a very interesting dynamic that this is basically a hostage situation but the hostage takers are very reluctant about what they’re doing. There’s not a clear protagonist/antagonist situation because the threats of violence are not targeted toward the other party. I think that strange dynamic only worked because of the actors and specifically Bautista.

I also want to shout out Rupert Grint — aka Ron Weasley — who I haven’t seen in a movie for a decade. He plays a very different character here. He’s only in the movie for a little bit but I enjoyed his contributions.

Those are the two I wanted to highlight but Knock at the Cabin is like other Shyamalan movies in that its performance feel genuine. They are the source of humanity and connection in this film that is otherwise about weighty abstract ideas. Shyamalan has always been good at connecting those things to actual people and this film is no exception.

Closing thoughts

All of this sound really great, but the one and fatal flaw of Knock at the Cabin is it doesn’t ever progress past its initial premise. It leads with the conflict between believing the apocalypse and not believing it and it basically restates that stalemate four times before coming to a lackluster conclusion. A conclusion that is very different from the book. I don’t know what Shyamalan wanted to accomplish with the conclusion we see in this movie other than ending his movie around 90 minutes. I might say I was disappointed the movie didn’t do more but I didn’t feel robbed or betrayed like I have with other Shyamalan twists. In fact, I’d say this movie doesn’t have a twist which is unique for Shyamalan.

I’d give Knock at the Cabin a 3 out of 5. It is an ok movie. It has a great premise and it gets close to mining the value of its conflict, but it never gets too deep into anything interesting. Which means it also doesn’t get too deep into anything embarrassing or gimmicky. I think it could have done more, but minute to minute — scene to scene — I enjoyed watching the movie. There are some things I could nitpick about its tension, but I don’t really see the point. Knock at the Cabin is a fine movie. In the context of Shyamalan’s tumultuous career, I think this is a big improvement.

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