Pretty much since Lady in the Water, I go into every new M. Night Shyamalan movie with cautious optimism and/or hopeful pessimism. I won’t continually harp on the director’s fallow period, but it has made his last decade or so interesting. While some movies, like The Visit and Split were surprisingly good, he did give us Glass which was very bad. And Old which was… weird. His latest, Knock at the Cabin is maybe his most effective, most satisfyingly troubling in a very, very long time. Not perfect, but damned riveting.
The movie, based on Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World, began life as one of the famed Black List screenplays from writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman. Shyamalan did a rewrite when he came on board to direct, as he does, and while the movie has some of his trademark weird moments—characters in dire situations talking about unimportant things a major one—the plot retains the taut ambiguity throughout. And the performances, especially from Dave Bautista, really carry the events. It feels like an even less showy Signs in a lot of ways.
Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) have taken their 8-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) to a remote cabin in Pennsylvania (of course) for a getaway. At the start of the movie, Leonard (Bautista) finds Wen catching grasshoppers and tries to make friends before saying some truly menacing things. Leonard’s three “co-workers” then walk up with makeshift weapons out of Mad Max and make for the cabin.
As you’ve probably seen in the movie’s marketing, the four intruders (the other three being Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint) tell the trapped family that the apocalypse is coming, and they will need to decide among them which of them will die—and the family has to do the killing, not the intruders—to stave off Armageddon. This came to them in a series of visions, punctuated by plagues and blights leading up to the final end.
It’s a great premise, no question. All four of the intruders convey the anguish of having to take part in this while never letting up on their firm stance that they must, for the sake of humanity. Bautista is truly superb, underplaying his lines, trying to be as unassuming as a giant, muscular, tattooed man with an ax can be. As the plagues escalate, he remains firm even as the others show growing desperation. If his performance wasn’t as strong, the movie wouldn’t work as well.
The flipside of the story is where the movie falters a bit. We need to believe that Eric and Andrew’s love and devotion to each other is strong enough to defy these would-be harbingers. We need to believe just as much in the idea that these are just crazy people targeting a gay couple with an adopted daughter as we do that it’s all really happening. Shyamalan shows us very brief flashbacks to various points in their relationship; while Eric’s family supports him, Andrew’s doesn’t. Andrew’s rage at the world becomes palpable, but I don’t think the movie does enough to make us side with the family over the intruders. And that’s a problem. Their us-against-the-world mentality needs to be the movie’s strongest element.
The tension and, at times, effective ambiguity carry the story for the most part. Chiefly, and this sounds like damning with faint praise, nothing stupid happens. Nobody acts out of character and no winky plot cheats come into play. This was a relief. And yeah, it’s an early February release, so you can’t expect the world, I’ll take a solid premise executed effectively over zany shenanigans that fall flat. It really could have gone the way of Bird Box which was supremely dumb at times despite a great premise. This stays in its lane and succeeds more than it doesn’t.
M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin opens February 3.
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.