A family trapped in a cabin by four strangers must choose to sacrifice one of their own, or else the apocalypse will be brought onto all of humanity.
With a premise that interesting but also just as wacky, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan could’ve easily messed up his new film “Knock at the Cabin,” an adaptation of Paul G. Tremblay’s novel “The Cabin at the End of the World.” Shyamalan’s other movies often vary between bad and so-bad-it’s-good, but it was still possible for him to make this into one of his better movies. Thankfully, “Knock at the Cabin” fits into the latter category.
This thriller begins with Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), vacationing in a cabin. A group of strangers, made up of Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Redmond (Rupert Grint) and Adriane (Abby Quinn), invades the cabin and forces them into their plan to prevent the apocalypse. The family must choose to kill one of themselves without influence from the home invaders, or they let the apocalypse happen.
What’s made interesting about this scenario is how, instead of an immediate end-of-the-world, the apocalypse is shown in waves. It goes from giant tsunamis to pandemics and other dark scenarios, creating a constant feeling of dread and establishing the film’s intensity. As we follow Eric, Andrew and Wen, they have no idea if what is happening is real, fake or coincidental.
That questioning then increases from the strangers themselves, who subvert the idea of violent home invaders and are instead normal people (for the most part, since their mental state and intent are constantly examined throughout). Leonard, Sabrina, Adriane and Redmond have lives beyond their agenda, ranging from being a nurse or teacher to having a son, but they were all forced into this situation after seeing terrifying visions of death and destruction.
The strangers’ motivations are used extremely well, with their sketchiness and backgrounds creating mystery to if what they are saying is true. Meanwhile, the family comes up with several plausible explanations or alternatives for any of these apocalyptic events within the movie’s logic and makes the strangers look crazy, ramping up the tension.
The cinematography also expresses the intense atmosphere. Even though this can be Shyamalan’s weakest point in other movies, the camerawork is toned down enough to have the overhanging dread become incredibly effective. Tight close-ups of faces, negative space and camera angles bring out the story’s foreboding nature, albeit in a showy, unsubtle way that can be distracting to some. Compared to Shyamalan’s lesser works, though, it’s still miles ahead of something like “The Last Airbender.”
Usually, Shyamalan’s writing and his directing to actors are panned and made fun of (i.e. Mark Wahlberg’s legendary performance in “The Happening”). Yet, thanks to screenwriters Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, the lines sound noticeably less awkward and alien than other Shyamalan films. Instead, they naturally fit how Eric, Andrew or the strangers would react to this terrible situation.
There are some bad lines, but the actors make them work with the atmosphere to show how uncomfortable the characters are. The actors for the strangers are especially good at showing their awkwardness in having to take a family hostage, something none of them have done before. This is also seen in how they act, with Redmond being forceful while the others try to keep everything calm.
The other actors do a good job, too. Groff and Aldrige have good chemistry together as a couple. They both come off as believable for people suddenly thrust into the plot, with Andrew being the skeptic who doesn’t believe in what’s happening and Eric slowly starting to believe their captors.
Kristen Cui is also good as Wen, getting some stand-out moments like the opening scene where she meets Leonard for the first time while by herself. This scene, which is shown in the trailer, portrays her character’s friendliness and unease with talking to an actor as gigantic as Bautista.
Sadly, despite how much has improved from Shyamalan’s other films, this movie still has issues, especially in the third act. Though it doesn’t exactly have the shocking Shyamalan Twist that everyone would expect in his movies, it tries to explain the strangers’ true purpose and goes more into what we’re supposed to get from the film, but it doesn’t do it well.
The explanation was unnecessary and forced, taking out any subtlety in what Shyamalan was doing. I’m sure people would’ve figured it out in a rewatch, or on the first viewing if they knew about Christianity. It tries to talk about faith, except it doesn’t get interesting or thought-provoking.
The significance behind Eric and Andrew being gay is poorly handled and the worst part of the movie. During the third act, they discuss why they should sacrifice themselves for a world that doesn’t care about them, as shown in several jarring flashbacks that mess with the film’s pacing.
And when Eric has to convince Andrew, what is his defense for humanity and its homophobia? “They’re just scared. Like the rest of us.” The fact that this was said in 2023 is laughable. It’s scenes like this that make me remember none of the three writers are gay, despite the film being inclusive enough to have the couple played by actual gay people.
While the ending isn’t too bad, it feels inferior to the book’s ending. The book juggled themes of faith and treatment of gay people way better, but the original ending was also bleaker. That conclusion wouldn’t fit with Shyamalan’s tendency to have a happy ending, so instead we get a mixed bag that causes his movie to fall apart.
But weirdly enough, despite the weak third act and the way it handled its themes, “Knock at the Cabin” still works as an apocalyptic thriller. Shyamalan’s usual weak spots became the best parts, and it’s still an engaging story that will make you care for both the heroes and villains as the literal doomsday clock heads straight to midnight. If anything, it gives hope that Shyamalan will continue to improve his writing and directing. Hopefully.
“Knock at the Cabin” is now in theaters and on digital. The film is rated R for language and violence.