Shyamalan Does It Again with Knock at the Cabin

By Justin Nordell

Now what do you think I mean by “Shyamalan does it again?” The Philadelphia darling, Director M. Night Shyamalan, is one of the most divisive filmmakers working today, having earned a cult following with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, only to lose acolytes with The Happening (a camp classic if you ask me) and Lady in the Water (a straightforward modern fairy tale). For some, “Shyamalan does it again” should indicate that the director has crafted a finely tuned thriller capable of engaging the audience and the box office. To others, “Shyamalan does it again” could have a negative connotation left behind from the films you were excited to see but left feeling disappointment. Whatever the phrase denotes to you, when I say “Shyamalan does it again,” I’m referring to one of the most consistently interesting directors in Hollywood taking big swings in storytelling but always focusing on character… and that’s exactly what Shyamalan has achieved again in his latest film, Knock at the Cabin.

A young girl catches grasshoppers in an open field, when she is approached by a hulk of a man appearing seemingly out of nowhere. After saying she doesn’t talk to strangers, he introduces himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista, Glass Onion) and she replies to be Wen (Kristen Cui in her feature film debut) and is turning eight years old in six days. He joins her in insectknapping, asking her questions to get to know her and vice versa. As a viewer, every fiber of your being is screaming for the little girl to get the heck out of there because the very sight of a giant of a man invading her personal space makes you uncomfortable, but Bautista brings such a genuine softness to Leonard that even you begin to let your guard down. That is, until three more adults appear behind him brandishing weapons and when Wen gets scared, Leonard doesn’t comfort her but begins speaking of a sacrifice that Wen and her family will need to make. 

Wen darts into a cabin to find her Daddy Eric (Lancaster native Jonathan Groff, Hamilton) and Daddy Andrew (Ben Aldridge, Spoiler Alert), and cry to them to lock all the doors to protect them from her new friend and these people with weapons. Unsure if their precocious daughter is playing pretend, the two dads don’t react until Leonard’s slow, menacing titular Knock at the Cabin makes them realize that the threat to their family is in fact very real. They try to block all of the entrances and brandish whatever weapons they can find in this rented home, but it’s no use and all four make it inside before a woman hits Eric in the head, rendering him unconscious. 

Eric awakens dazed to find himself and Andrew tied to chairs and Wen gripping onto them for dear life as four people stand before them: Leonard, a schoolteacher and coach from the Midwest, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Shyamalan’s previous film Old), a nurse from the west coast, Adriane (Abby Quinn, the underseen Torn Hearts available on Amazon Prime), a chef from DC, and Redmond (Rupert Grint, Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter franchise), a hothead from Boston. None of these four incongruous individuals claim to have known each other before meeting here near this cabin in the woods outside Philadelphia, but they were all drawn there by haunting visions of the end of the world. They share that Eric, Andrew, and Wen must come together and choose to sacrifice one of their own – otherwise the world will end and every life on earth other than their family will be sacrificed instead. Could they possibly be telling the truth or are these four part of a doomsday cult that targeted this same-sex couple for more nefarious reasons? The lines become blurred, especially for the concussed Eric, as our quartet of home invaders try desperately to convince the family of the visions they’ve seen and provide proof of the world ending around them via news footage (and an eye-roll inducing cameo of M. Night himself hocking an air fryer in an infomercial) on the cabin’s TV screen. 

Based on Paul Tremblay’s fantastic 2018 novel Cabin at the End of the WorldKnock at the Cabin plays it a little safer and straightforward by comparison, choosing to focus entirely on our seven characters, their motivations, and who they are as people. Andrew, having been the victim of a hate crime years earlier, is convinced that their family was targeted because they are gay, fighting back against what he perceives to be dangerous cult group-think and bigotry. The haunting question of which member of your family would you sacrifice to save the world should resonate with most viewers, but it’s the happenstance that in this cabin is a same-sex couple that gives the novel and film its power. This is a family that has had to fight and sacrifice to even exist – we see in the film that when adopting Wen in Asia, the parents had to lie and say that Andrew was Eric’s brother in law to even be allowed to adopt this child, and even then it was because she was born with a cleft lip. When your loving family is hated for even existing by so many in this world, it’s no wonder that the first and only assumption these two loving fathers can make is that they’re being victimized due to hate. But when it becomes clearer that there may be stronger and higher forces at play here, it only becomes that much harder to protect the family that they worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build. 

The character work is the greatest strength in most of Shyamalan’s work – the plot of The Sixth Sensenever would have worked without those phenomenal characters imbued by Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, and Toni Collette – but here in Knock at the Cabin it is truly top tier as each get multiple moments to shine and show their vulnerability in an impossible situation. Shyamalan, who wrote the final draft of the script, keeps the film more straightforward than many would expect from him choosing to mine the audience’s fears as family members placing themselves in this impossible situation and keeping the tensions high and audiences guessing well into the third act. Changes to the source material certainly soften the blow (yes I’m one of those ‘the book is better’ schmucks),  but I cannot help but admire and heartily recommend this fantastically shot taught, heartstring tugging little thriller with fantastic performances from its entire cast.

Grade: B

In theaters: February 3, 2023

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