Synopsis: While vacationing at a remote cabin, a family of three is suddenly held hostage by four strangers who demand they sacrifice one of their own to avert the apocalypse.
Stars: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: There comes the point in every film from director M. Night Shyamalan where the director has laid his proverbial cards out on the table, and the audience has to choose. Do they forge ahead on the path laid out by Shyamalan (sometimes inelegantly), or do they reject it outright and spend the remainder wishing they’d opted for the rom-com in the next theater? With the once-hot director staging an intriguing comeback since 2015’s The Visit, more often than not, the viewer is more interested to see how things will turn out. (As opposed to a film like 2008’s The Happening when no one minded who wound up breathing by the time the credits rolled.)
After tripping a bit with 2019’s Glass and then literally wading into full-on silly waters with 2021’s Old, Shyamalan has taken a page from his successful Apple TV+ show Servant and delivered a compelling, tension-filled, one-setting thriller to kick off 2023. Adapted from Paul Tremblay’s frightening 2018 bestseller ‘The Cabin at the End of the World,’ Shyamalan has wisely retitled the film Knock at the Cabin (once you see it, you’ll know why) and tweaked the original screenplay drafted by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman which had bounced around unproduced for several years. The effect is 100 minutes of entertainment that reminds you how well Shyamalan can fiddle with our nerves using more than mere visual cues.
Wasting little time diving into the action, audiences find themselves in the woods near a remote cabin watching Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui in a knockout performance) collect grasshoppers. At the same time, her two dads relax on the back porch. The tranquility of her playtime is interrupted by Leonard (Dave Bautista, My Spy), a hulking figure emerging from nowhere that strikes up a conversation with the young girl. Our red alert is going off hardcore that Leonard is no good, but his easy-going charm works on Wen…for a while. When his three companions arrive with crudely assembled “tools,” the idle chatter turns ominous.
It’s here when things get a little dicey to talk about. If you’ve seen the preview or read any synopsis, it’s no spoiler to share that Leonard, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Persuasion), Adriane (Abby Quinn, Torn Hearts), and Redmond (Rupert Grint, Thunderpants) hold the family captive. Eric (Jonathan Groff, Frozen) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge, Spoiler Alert) are then told they have to make an impossible decision for the rest of the world to continue. I won’t talk about the potential consequences of their unwillingness to participate as requested or if what the four outsiders are preaching is gospel.
Interjected throughout are bits of the couple’s backstory before and after they adopted Wen, glimpses into their life that helps inform the second half of the film. The inclusion of these scenes may seem inconsequential at the time, but it’s another way Shyamalan uses his talents of emotional connection to round out his characters. Few writers/directors know how to do this as well, and in the midst of Shyamalan’s weird spinning out in his post-Signs era, audiences and critics alike failed to remember this overall strength.
One of Shyamalan’s best-cast films in ages, Knock at the Cabin, made me believe in the power of Bautista again after briefly being derailed by his shenanigans with the Guardians of the Galaxy films. His lead character has complexities that add unexpected dramatic weight. Also strong are Amuka-Bird and Quinn as ordinary people doing what they believe to be right and willing to take extreme action (in every sense of the word) to ensure what needs to happen happens. Groff makes inward gains in his work on creating three-dimensional characters that resemble real people, an area he’s struggled with. He’s helped along the way by Aldridge, who has to juggle more of the skeptical side of the coin, which is never easy. The weakest showing is Grint, the one member of the Harry Potter trio who can’t seem to find his niche outside of Hogwarts.
While intelligent for the most part, Knock at the Cabin isn’t above asking its characters to make a few head-shaking, eye-rolling maneuvers, i.e., why don’t people just shoot their attacker immediately? Thankfully, with a spooky score from Herdís Stefánsdóttir and moody camera work from cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (The Northman), Knock at the Cabin can maintain its tone right up until its finale. It’s one of the few Shyamalan films with a perfect ending, too. With its high-stakes, high-tension set-up, I don’t think I could revisit this Cabin soon, but this initial watch was worth the dark trip.