M. Night Shyamalan is back on form with this apocalyptic thriller starring Dave Bautista
Dir: M. Night Shyamalan. US. 2023. 100mins
The end is nigh, maybe, in Knock At The Cabin, a grim thriller in which a loving family’s holiday is invaded by a small group of armed zealots convinced they are key to stopping the apocalypse. Director M. Night Shyamalan crafts an exercise in tense claustrophobia, teasing the audience with the question of whether their preposterous beliefs are correct — a riddle complicated by our familiarity with this filmmaker’s fondness for third-act twists. Instead of pulling the rug out from under the viewer, though, Shyamalan goes in a direction that proves more disquieting, examining the nature of sacrifice and the bond between parents and children.
Shyamalan crafts an exercise in tense claustrophobia
Opening in the UK and US on February 3, this Universal release will attract audiences because of the Shyamalan name, not to mention Dave Bautista’s presence as one of the intimidating arrivals. The picture faces competition from the still-potent Avatar: The Way Of Water and the forthcoming Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania, but the simple, clever premise should appeal to genre fans.
Married couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) are enjoying a getaway at a remote forest cabin with their young adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) when they’re visited by four strangers led by Leonard (Bautista), whose gentle speaking style belies his seriousness of purpose. Leonard explains that they have had visions of the end of the world — directing them to this exact cabin. Now they must make its inhabitants sacrifice one of their own in order to prevent doomsday. Eric and Andrew don’t believe them, but as disturbing news items begin popping up on the television regarding global catastrophes, they start to wonder if Leonard may be right.
Based on Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel ‘The Cabin At The End Of The World’, the film builds tension from the standoff between this couple and the home invaders. Joined by compassionate Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), skittish Adriane (Abby Quinn) and antagonistic Redmond (Rupert Grint), Leonard presents his crew’s seemingly preposterous mission in as calm and rational a manner as possible, insisting that they are all sane and that their similar visions have drawn them to one another. Eric and Andrew reject his demand that they sacrifice one of their family members but, no matter how much they try to talk sense to Leonard, he is determined to save the world – resulting in gruesome consequences.
Shyamalan presents this story with such matter-of-factness that the audience will be tempted to assume there is more going on than we realise. Of all modern filmmakers, the Oscar-nominated director of The Sixth Sense has most conditioned viewers to expect some sort of surprise, and so it is natural to be as suspicious as Eric and Andrew are about Leonard’s claims. But as Knock At The Cabin slowly drops more hints that perhaps the apocalypse is coming — with some particularly harrowing images — audiences may begin to take Leonard’s side.
Set largely inside the cabin, the film employs brief flashbacks that flesh out Eric and Andrew’s backstory, showing how they fell in love, adopted Wen and occasionally endure violent homophobia in public. These interludes help to establish the dynamic between the lovers, with Aldridge conveying hints of Andrew’s cynicism and anger and Groff portraying Eric’s sweeter disposition. These flashbacks will prove crucial as the present-day plot plays out and the couple decide how to fight back against Leonard.
With his imposing physique and thin wire-framed glasses, Leonard is a compelling study in contrasts, both menacing and sensitive, and Bautista makes those contradictions feel seamless. Leonard assures the couple that he and his crew will not hurt them, but the serenity of his behaviour is, if anything, more unnerving. The small fissure that develops between Eric and Andrew — with one beginning to believe Leonard — adds even more stress to a situation in which there seems to be no escape.
Eventually, Shyamalan must show his hand and, without spoiling the finale, let it be said that he finds a resolution that answers the film’s central mystery while leaving room for a satisfying amount of ambiguity. Eric and Andrew will do anything to protect their child, and Knock At The Cabin proves to be an effective, if somewhat obvious metaphor for pandemic anxiety, capturing the uncertainty and paranoia of the era. Shyamalan ends the picture not with a bang but with something far more subtle and unsettling — hinting that, even when we get answers to the terrors around us, we still don’t feel safe. We’re always afraid of the knock that may come to our door.
Production company: Blinding Edge Pictures
Worldwide distribution: Universal Pictures
Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan and Steve Desmond & Michael Sherman, based on the book The Cabin At The End Of The World written by Paul Tremblay
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke, Lowell A. Meyer
Production design: Naaman Marshall
Editing: Noemi Preiswerk
Music: Herdis Stefansdottir
Main cast: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint