Certain seasoned directors have their own lived-in style precede the next film they intend to put out. What is expected from the bigger names holds true with almost every film, having the same predictability behind the core structure and themes that director utilizes. When the name M. Night Shyamalan is brought up, it’s almost a guarantee that the infamous twist will come at some point during his screenplays with the audience privy to them beforehand, whereas some will end up just waiting for it to come while the films narrative washes over or making guesses at what the twist could be up to that point.
It’s also a point in questioning if we will get the director of The Last Airbender and After Earth or the director of Split and Signs.
With Knock at the Cabin, co-written with Michael Sherman and Steve Desmond and directed by Shyamalan and adapted from the Paul Tremblay novel The Cabin at the End of the World, the narrative doesn’t need that Shyamalan twist to be in good standing with its viewers. Instead, it’s the panic induced atmosphere Shyamalan creates, cranking up the tension during the height of the climactic moments and following through on the emotional beats set up by the screenplay. A screenplay that doesn’t live up to the expectations of the adapted story but is saved by other key elements.
Taking place largely at one centralized location, a desolate cabin in the woods, married couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) are visited at their remote vacation destination by 4 people destined to stop the apocalypse with a grim price to be paid. Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Redmond (Rupert Grint) give the family an impossible scenario – sacrifice one of their family to stop the apocalypse. If they fail to choose, a plague will be unleased on the earth and its people.
As the story begins to unravel and hard choices are to be argued over and decided on, M. Night cuts in flashback scenes that show us more of the complex differences between Eric and Andrew. Paired by Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge, the two fit together like a puzzle piece with newcomer Kristen Cui completing the trio. These edits are few and far in between but the purpose they serve for exposition, cut the heightened tension with a knife only to pull us out of the heat of the moment. One flashback shows the adoption of Wen, another re-enacts a single line of dialogue that painted a picture without the necessity of seeing the full scene playout. The latter scene showing a progression for Andrew that would pay off toward the films conclusion.
Cui, at a young age holds her own against the talent of her veteran co-stars. Her subtilties in reaction time, expressions and instincts give off the impression that she has done this for years. But Knock at the Cabin’s breakout performance and narrative burden is handled solely by Dave Bautista. The WWE wrestler turned actor has turned out quite an impressive career post putting his massive body on the line for entertainment but it’s with Kock at the Cabin that Bautista is most comfortable and versatile. His character Leonard is the films catalyst – catching the unsuspecting family up to speed along with us as the audience not understanding why the 4 once strangers are now showing up with weapons to cause harm and disrupt a quiet vacation.
As I mentioned earlier, the film is at its best when creating the sense of anxiety through built tense interactions and dialogue. Everything is plainly laid out by Leonard and his associates that gets challenged by the couple around every corner. Whether it’s just a coincidence that this family was chosen or the result of targeted bigotry – the panic is real, complimented nicely by the small cabin that has the air sucked out of it and the close-up cinematography by the duo of Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A Meyer.
Getting the angles just right lets the imagination run with what is happening off screen. The looks of concern and the anticipation of whats to come. We’re not meant to see the entire picture for a reason but when the camera is up close and personal on one of the 7 characters, nothing else seems to matter. The sounds of various bugs get louder and every thought that passes through the mind is expressively seen on the face in focus. Filling the void with even more adrenaline is an explosive score by Herdís Stefánsdóttir. It’s the quiet moments that make a horror thriller film the most dangerous – at any time a single note can create a stir that will cause goosebumps and the hair to standup on the back of the neck.
Helping Knock at the Cabin achieve the desired sound is the larger formatted screens like Dolby or IMAX to become fully emersed in the melodrama and terror. The decision of who to sacrifice and the subsequent consequences gives the anxiousness its steady footing. Though Shyamalan doesn’t use jump scares centered around violent acts to scare the viewer, it’s the environment and use of sounds in nature that will cause the heart to skip a beat.
In handling the subject matter and the violence that is an effect of choices made or not made, the lack of visual violence and gore takes away from the momentum of the moment. When it’s time for a sacrifice, Shyamalan cuts to a flashback rendering the emotional payoff ineffective. The cut aways slow down the pacing even with a tight runtime of 100 minutes. I’m not saying we needed to see every kill to feel impact but not showing key moments takes away from the decision Eric and Andrew must make to save the population.
Ultimately, Knock at the Cabin gets its point across – whether it’s by way of the allegorical kind or arriving after a period of turmoil we all experienced, the result lands in the higher tier of Shyamalan’s filmography. While the core of the story was adapted correctly, I can’t help but wonder if the novels ending was used instead, how the film would have turned out or if it had the same impact. Regardless, getting to the conclusion is a tense fueled journey with no shortage of heart stopping philosophical pondering.
Screenplay By: Michael Sherman, Steve Desmond & M. Night Shyamalan
Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan
Music By: Herdís Stefánsdóttir
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke & Lowell A. Meyer
Edited By: Noemi Katharina Preiswerk
Starring: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint
Release Date: February 3, 2023
Running Time: 1 Hour 40 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 68%
Based On: The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul G. Tremblay