Knock at the Cabin(2/5/2023)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

So, I’ve recently somewhat re-evaluated the career of director M. Night Shyamalan, a guy who’s taken me on quite a journey.  You can read all about it with my most recent “Closure” article or listen to my most recent appearance on the Cinema in Seconds podcast if you want more details, but in brief the guy’s first three movies were really important to me when I was first getting into film but after his precipitous decline in quality after about the year 2004 I kind of shunned him and felt a certain sense of betrayal out of the direction his career took.  But in the last couple of years I’ve maybe come to a point where I want to give Shyamalan a bit more credit both for his longevity as an independent minded auteur in Hollywood and just as someone who’s weird eccentricities are maybe worth considering when they show in his work even if some of the movies themselves aren’t entirely well served by them.  This felt like a good time to start getting a new outlook on Shyamalan because he does seem to be on a bit of a career resurgence following the success of his movie Split and other projects like Glass and Old which seemed to find an audience even if they weren’t quite up to snuff in the ways that his earliest movies were.  And also I wanted to catch up with this reconsideration in the lead-up to his newest film, a thriller called Knock at the Cabin which seems like a pretty good vehicle both for his skills as a craftsman and his various religious preoccupations.

As the title implies, Knock at the Cabin is largely set in a remote cabin in the woods where a small family has been staying for a little while.   The family consists of two gay men, the meek lapsed catholic Eric (Jonathan Groff) and the more hot tempered Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their young adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui).  The three are enjoying themselves until one day four people led by the physically imposing Leonard (Dave Bautista) suddenly break into their house and hold them hostage.  These four do not appear to be very practiced at breaking and entering and seem to be composed of people from various walks of life and multiple regions of the country including a nurse named Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a waitress named Adriane (Abby Quinn), and an ex-con who goes by Redmond (Rupert Grint).  The four don’t seem to hold any malice towards the family and once their tied up they explain their motives: the four of them have all received visions that the world is going to end unless the four of them go on this mission and convince the family living at that cabin to make the ultimate sacrifice by having two of the three murder the other to avert the apocalypse that will end life on earth.  Obviously believing this to be insane, the family must find a way to escape from these fanatics before it’s too late.

So, I’ll just come out and say that this is almost certainly M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie since as far back as The Village.  Now, that’s really not the highest bar to clear as pretty much everything the guy made between 2006 and 2015 was a disaster and most of what he’s made since then has been middling at best.  I’m also not going to say that this means this is a complete return to form either as I certainly don’t think it’s close to being as good as his “big three” of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs but I don’t want to downplay it either because he has finally made a movie that I’m willing to recommend (for what it is) without too many reservations.  A big advantage this likely had over some of his earlier productions is that he wrote the screenplay with two collaborators and also he’s adapting a novel this time, “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul G. Tremblay, which likely gave him a framework where he can establish his characters without giving them weird tics and also just generally have other people around to hold him back from indulging some of his stranger instincts that tend to be stilting on screen.

This is, however, absolutely a Shyamalan movie and mostly in good ways.  At its base level the film is a pretty nicely crafted thriller that establishes its characters well, gets you to care about them, and root for them through their plight.  Everything’s paced well; Shyamalan gets in some decent shots and stages his sequences quite effectively.  I don’t want to over sell this, it’s certainly not doing anything wildly out of the ordinary really and I do worry that I’m letting my low expectations for later day Shyamalan boost it a bit too much but it worked for me.  It’s also very much a Shyamalan film in that it rests on some overtly religious themes that are, uh, a little hard for me (a Dawkins-esque atheist) to get behind.  Shyamalan is not, as far as I can tell a practicing Christian.  He seems to be one of those “spiritual but not religious” types who think all religions are valid expressions of some unknowable deity.  He was once attached to make Life of Pi and while I’m glad Ang Lee was the one to ultimately make that film, it’s not hard to see its take on “god” would appeal to Shyamalan greatly.  However, he is a western filmmaker so usually when he makes these movies Christianity and specifically Catholicism is the medium of choice to explore “god.”  I’m not completely closed minded about this kind of thing: I basically embraced his film Signs, even though it’s a movie that’s kind of counter to most of my principles, but your movie better be damn good for me to go along with something like that.

Knock at the Cabin is a movie that very closely resembles Signs when it comes to religion as both are movies that are premised around god very much being real and are finally solved by the film’s central skeptic admitting that the signs of this are all there and overcoming his doubts to trust in the reality of the situation and take action accordingly.  Not exactly a message I love, but the movie certainly delivers it with some conviction.  There’s also something of a Book of Revelation cruelty to the god in question here, which does add some negative connotations to the religiosity here, and it’s also probably not a coincidence that the film put a highly sympathetic gay couple at its center in order make it clear that it’s not pushing the most intolerant kinds of Christianity.  If you can go along with that I think there’s a lot to like here.  There are a couple bits of Shyamalan-ian weirdness here and there (like the odd weapons the villains are wielding and a couple bits of questionable dialogue) but by and large the director avoids embarrassing himself like he has in some previous projects.  So, yeah, hopefully this is a sign of good things in the future for the director.  That said, “the director avoids embarrassing himself” is not exactly a quote for the poster and I do wonder if I’d be as nice to this if not for all the director’s baggage and expectations setting.
*** out of Five


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