Knock at the Cabin is M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie since Signs

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Knock at the Cabin. // Universal Pictures

The strength of M. Night Shyamalan’s concepts are undeniable. The man clearly has the art of the elevator pitch on lockdown.

“What if a ghost didn’t know he was a ghost?” “What if a rustic village wasn’t actually a village?” “What if there was a beach that made you old?”

You get where I’m going with this. 

The trouble for Shyamalan (though the word “trouble” is up for debate depending on how hard you ride for the guy) comes in executing those ideas. He makes bizarre dialogue choices that lead to even stranger acting choices on the part of his cast. He’s a skilled visual storyteller, but doesn’t trust the audience enough to pick up what he’s laying down, and what he’s laying down is rarely complex enough to require spelling out. As an artist, he’s a riddle you want to solve, but are perpetually a few Rubik’s Cube turns away from fully figuring out.

Shyamalan’s latest film, Knock at the Cabin, offers some helpful answers to the eternal question “How do you fix an M. Night Shyamalan movie?”

Those answers: make sure other people work on the script, adapt the story from a high quality source, and cast Dave Bautista.

Knock at the Cabin is easily the director’s best work in years. Its strengths lie in sticking to its tight premise, and in the strength of its collaborators.

Adapted by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman from Paul G. Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World, the film follows vacationing family Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). They’re enjoying a getaway at a rented rural cabin when four strangers—Leonard (Bautista), Redmond (Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and Adriane (Abby Quinn)—interrupt their peace with a shocking announcement. Leonard, Redmond, Sabrina and Adriane have been getting apocalyptic visions, and believe the world will end unless this chosen family sacrifices one of their own. Obviously, Eric, Andrew and Wen don’t believe Leonard and his crew…at least at first.

It feels throughout Knock at the Cabin as if Shyamalan is trying his utmost to avoid giving in to his worst instincts. In the few moments where the veil momentarily drops, that effort is all the more apparent and, honestly, appreciated. Mostly gone are the over-explanatory dialogue and the patented rug-pull twist, replaced with a gradual reveal that makes us question the validity of what we’re experiencing alongside Eric, Andrew and Wen. Our understanding of those characters, too, is spread out rather than dumped, as Shyamalan intersperses the story with flashbacks from Eric and Andrew’s life together that help us get to know these characters, and love the family they’ve built. 

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Knock at the Cabin. // Universal Pictures

That instant sense of connection, and everyone’s emotional roles, is also efficiently communicated through the film’s performances. Groff radiates kindness and loyalty as Eric that perfectly tempers Aldridge’s protective rage as Andrew. Cui is lively and bright as Wen, exhibiting both an innocence we instinctively want to protect and a startling maturity that shows us she knows more than the non-parental adults in her life think she does. 

All of them, however, are outdone by Bautista, who is a revelation.

Since his debut in Guardians of the Galaxy, Bautista has repeatedly demonstrated a facility for imbuing physically imposing characters with surprising sensitivity and earnestness. Both of those qualities serve him well here, and make a surprising chocolate-and-peanut-butter pairing with Shyamalan’s creative idiosyncrasies. Bautista sells every single line, and comes off as both emotionally vulnerable and a bit of a cypher. It’s the kind of performance that makes you wish you could retroactively plug him into Shyamalan’s previous movies, just to see what he’d do.

Knock at the Cabin is the kind of tight, Twilight Zone-esque storytelling that Shyamalan’s best at, and here he’s given collaborative constraints that keep his goofier proclivities in line. That allows the film to actually explore its characters, and dig into themes of humanity’s sinfulness versus whether it deserves redemption. Those themes get a somewhat shallow treatment here, but they still open up the possibility for fascinating conversations after the credits roll.

Shyamalan’s new film suggests a promising future for the director, if he learns the right lessons from it.

Categories: Movies