Ever since the great The Sixth Sense, I’ve always looked forward to M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent films, despite diminishing returns. Say what you will about the final products, but he knows how to set up a provocative, pulpy premise and deliver those famous twists you chat about around the water cooler the next day. Sure, he’s had some low points with people running from the wind or responsible parents sending a blind girl alone into the treacherous woods, but he has always had strong commercial instincts and a knack for precision framing. As most of his films have ultimately disappointed me, I begged for him to direct scripts from other writers or at least adapt a film from another medium.
Enter Knock At The Cabin, which Shyamalan, along with co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, have adapted from Paul Tremblay’s 2018 horror novel, The Cabin At The End Of The World. Despite some repetitiveness, this is easily one of Shyamalan’s best films in many years. I greatly looked forward to this movie, as I count the Home Invasion Thriller among my favorite genres. It also happens to be that rare studio film which centers around a gay married couple, providing a fresh take on a time-worn tale.
You’ve seen the setup before. A family arrives at their vacation spot, the dreaded cabin in the woods. Here we meet Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their adopted daughter Wen (the strikingly self-possessed Kristen Cui). As the film opens, Wen has wandered off to gather grasshoppers when a hulking stranger named Leonard walks up to her and awkwardly attempts to befriend her. As played by David Bautista, Leonard ominously tells Wen that her parents won’t want to let him and his friends inside, but they will have to do so.
[Spoiler Alert – and I’m not referring to Aldridge’s last film – but if you’ve seen the trailer, I’m going to discuss the basic premise in the next paragraph]
Scared, Wen races to her parents and they hurry to protect themselves. When the titular event occurs, we know no good can come from this. It’s a truly terrifying premise, one which conjured up all sorts of “Is Tamara home?” memories from The Strangers. Sure enough, Leonard and his cohorts, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint), come knocking with some medieval weapons in tow. Once inside, the four present our family with an insane option. The four will not harm them, but one family member must willingly allow themselves to be killed by one of the other two or else the entire world will end. Yes, the apocalypse is coming, folks!
I won’t discuss the plot specifics beyond this, but what follows is an unnerving series of events which bring up issues such as faith and the impact we humans have on the environment, themes which Shyamalan has explored in many of his past films, but here we have homophobic hate crimes added to the mix. It’s a provocative addition, one which comes with a surprise or two and contributes to the core mystery. I’m not convinced it all ties together perfectly, but the premise has an open-ended quality anyhow. Like Shyamalan’s series, Servant, which also features an outstanding Rupert Grint, we witness cult-like behavior and constantly question the veracity of it. We’re intentionally duped by unreliable narrators or by people who may not all have the answers.
One can also see the parallels with the COVID crisis in this film, despite the source material pre-dating it. Additionally, the fact that most of the action takes place in a single house with a limited cast speaks to these times. Shyamalan makes the best of such limitations, expertly photographing a contained set. He knows his way around an action sequence and has always excelled with well-placed silences and the use of negative space in his compositions.
A story like this, while well-crafted and beautifully directed, at times grows repetitive and strains credibility. Thus, it lives or dies by its cast, and everyone here excels. Jonathan Groff has an inherent sweetness to him which helps to sell his character’s shifting point of view. I bought him as this somewhat square daddy whose people pleasing tendencies give way to being open to perhaps the more unbelievable information hurled at them. Groff gets extra points for not spitting all over his co-stars, something he’s famous for doing on stage, during the obligatory singing in the car scene.
Ben Aldridge, so winning in the aforementioned Spoiler Alert, continues his ascent to stardom with his great looks and hair-trigger portrayal. He also impresses in the action sequences, brandishing a gun in a way which gave me “Will he be the first out gay James Bond?” vibes. He’s got superstar upside, which is exciting to see in an out gay actor.
Amuka-Bird, Grint and Quinn acquit themselves nicely in roles which call for large, potentially annoying exposition dumps, but all find their characters’ humanity. The real revelation here, however, is Bautista, who gives a towering, gentle giant performance of such tenderness and vulnerability all mixed together with that intimidating physical presence. He’s clearly on a career trajectory like that of Dwayne Johnson, but with much more accomplished dramatic skills. You want to hate this quartet of home invaders, but they all bring a surprising amount of heart to their roles.
Because of Shyamalan’s spotty track record, it’s difficult to go into his films without bracing yourself for those eye-rolling moments. Some of the speeches did that for me, overwritten and occasionally a little too shouty, but for the most part, I really sat forward in my seat and enjoyed the ride. Some of the doomsday moments felt genuinely scary although on the whole, this film is more tense than frightening. Fans of the novel will not feel spoiled by the differing turns the film takes. This is just plain old-fashioned, good commercial filmmaking which made me want to discuss it with people afterwards. It may feel claustrophobic and it may hammer the same points home over and over again, but the fact that it tackles such huge issues from a queer perspective gives this treasured genre a fresh twist.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Knock At The Cabin opens in theaters only on February 3rd.
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