Thursday, April 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Knock at the Cabin’ is M. Night Shyamalan’s Best in Decades

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Writers: M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman

Stars: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Rupert Grint

Synopsis: While vacationing, a girl and her parents are taken hostage by armed strangers who demand that the family make a choice to avert the apocalypse.

While its messaging may be muddled due to narrative changes from its source material, Paul G. Tremblay’s ‘The Cabin at the End of the World’ (2018), which might have given it a darker and dread-filled tone, Knock at the Cabin marks M. Night Shyamalan’s return to form, delivering his strongest feature in decades since the severely underrated The Village (2004). 

 Knock at the Cabin centers around a family, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), who are vacationing with their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), at an isolated cabin in the woods. Everything seems to be going fine, and the skies are blue; however, something will ruin their peaceful break and turn it into a nightmare they won’t return the same from. A martyr-like quarter, led by Leonard (Dave Bautista), is invading their home to make an impossible choice that might change the fate of the earth. Alongside Leonard, there’s Remond (Rupert Grint), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), all of whom have traveled from afar to get to the cabin. They try to convince the family that if one of them isn’t sacrificed in a couple of hours, the world will commence its end. Like Signs, M. Night’s latest centers around the faith and beliefs of  characters in an uncertain predicament. While in the Joaquin Phoenix-led picture, it’s aliens; here, four people are invading a home, proclaiming that the world will end in a couple of hours if they don’t sacrifice one family member. 

Eric and Andrew are baffled by this decision, mainly because they don’t believe that sacrificing one of them will actually stop the end of the world, even if it is true that it is going to happen. So, Knock at the Cabin relies on deceit and fear to fuel its simple yet thematically multilayered premise. It brings to mind Mike Tolkin’s film The Rapture, where a woman finds God after living an empty and amoral life, only to have her faith tested once she encounters a man. Both films play with people getting their convictions stretched by vessels who proclaim that bad things will happen. Although there almost aren’t any subplots attached to this primarily one-location picture, two movies are running simultaneously during Knock at the Cabin’s runtime. However, you can’t see one of them until the very end. The first and most discernible one can be taken from the film’s title alone: the home invasion thriller mixed with a cabin in the woods movie. 

The other is an “end of the world” movie, in which the apocalypse breaks the sky in half, and everything is in flames – utter destruction caused by disastrous mayhem. M. Night Shyamalan has played with these subgenres of films before (cabin in the woods, sort of, with The Visit and end of the world with The Happening). Yet, in Knock at the Cabin, he gets bolder with his narrative choices to subvert our expectations and more creative to keep us hooked and on the edge of our seats during its thrilling sequences. The first movie, the home invasion thriller, is its priority, as the duelings between faith, belief, and ignorance are being fought. This is where we get the main confrontations, and the film’s tension arises because of their dialogue. The second movie, the end of the world disaster flick, is primarily showcased through TV footage, although later on, we begin to see glimpses of catastrophe through the snap of Shyamalan’s fingers. 

When the line “humanity has been judged” is spoken, the audience starts to see disastrous events occurring… or are they? That second movie is happening, but we don’t see it. The outskirts of this one-location thriller have bright skies and beautiful green forests. Shyamalan plays with the setting and the television recordings to make us (and the characters in the film) believe that something terrible is happening, even though we can’t perceive it at the moment. This intertwining between the two co-running pictures creates a cinematic dynamic that creates tension from both inside the cabin and outside – what’s going on (or what isn’t going on) out there in the world. It is crafty and bold to use such a mechanism because the audience might lose interest in the former and want to see the latter due to the primarily theatrical presentation of its narrative. Yet, M. Night keeps us hooked due to some well-crafted scenarios of violence and claustrophobic camerawork by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (known for working with Robert Eggers). 

Since his “comeback” (when he began self-financing his films), whether you like the features so far or not, Shyamalan has been slowly lifting his directorial game. Many stylistic decisions work in its favor while adding some heft to the film’s themes. He leans more into letting the camera breathe by not cutting at every single moment, except when there’s a scene of violence, and doing closeups of the actors’ faces, leaving the audience closely observing for the minute details that might decipher is Leonard and his crew is telling the truth regarding upcoming damnation or not. I think the main problem with Knock at the Cabin is that occasionally M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t stop himself regarding his features’ ideas. He pours all of them without restraint, and occasionally it feels forced (sometimes even silly) rather than adequately put together. Whether it is dialogue choices or the addition of KC & The Sunshine Band’s ‘Boogie Shoes’, there are moments that take you off the experience for a quick second because it doesn’t fit the tone it was setting up. But, at least it all adds to a unique experience where he engages us by not doing the same shtick or stories. 

The second issue I have with this film is the changes M. Night made to the source material, which ends up giving Knock at the Cabin a lesser darker tone in comparison. The dialogue in Paul G. Tremblay’s book is rougher and somber. And although M. Night occasionally pours some dread onto the scenery, most of the time, it is being handled by the performances more so than dialogue being said. Everyone brings their A-game here, notably Dave Bautista, who we can call the best wrestler-turned-actor of all time and has nailed the sensible-yet-intimidating character portrayal. Then there’s Jonathan Groff, who does not have the intensity that his co-lead Ben Aldridge has when it comes to the nail-biter sequences. Yet, still, Groff balances his performance by focusing more on broken mental stability, coincidentally standing out when the camera is doing a close-up on him. Another actor that nails the balancing act tension of “we come in peace” and fiery intensity is Abby Quinn, whose eyes are haunting yet sincere. There’s nothing to complain about when it comes to the cast overall.

In addition to the plethora of ideas M. Night is putting onto the screen, the ending has also been changed; the final death (or sacrifices) are not the same in the film as in the book. The original climax is more tragic than what M. Night concocted. Although, if you have seen some of the director’s work, you know he wasn’t going to do that ending because it was quite “shocking”. M. Night Shyamalan isn’t a director that dwells on shock factor, so I can see the reasoning behind the change, but I would’ve liked it if he went full throttle with that narrative decision. This same dilemma happened with his previous feature Old. Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters’ graphic novel was very depressive and melancholic, and M. Night didn’t replicate those emotional sensibilities onto the screen as much as he could. It seems to me that although he could, M. Night doesn’t want to put the audience into a hypnotic, melancholic trance because it loses some of its potential popcorn entertainment. 

I would have liked it if he expressed these themes with their full force rather than planting them at half their strengths. Sure, Knock at the Cabin is compelling and moves the viewer, but it could have been more gripping and emotionally titillating than the final product. The director’s latest work shines bright despite the fact that it’s mostly a gloomy picture; M. Night delivers his best film in many years. It might not surpass The Village, but it does provide a glimpse of what’s to come for the director-screenwriter’s future projects – and it has me, and hopefully many, excited. 

Grade: B+

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