2 out of 5 stars

Weird can be good. M. Night Shyamalan (Glass) built his early career on it. But weird can also be…. well, just weird… and with Knock at the Cabin, his latest misfire, everything starts with the title. Not only is Paul G. Tremblay’s book title, The Cabin at the End of the World, far more interesting, but the title Knock at the Cabin comes across as either an imperative (“go on, knock!”) or as inexplicably missing a definite article (The Knock…)

Unimportant details, sure, but it’s an example of Shyamalan’s tin ear for language, as he frequently has characters say things that don’t sound believable. Worse still, the filmmaker’s capacity for misjudgement has recently started to extend beyond duff dialogue to what was originally one of his strongest points: plotting. And here lies Knock at the Cabin’s fundamental flaw.

This film is almost entirely premise, without development, and it’s a somewhat arbitrary premise that feels plucked out of thin air without any real justification as to why it would affect these specific people at this specific time. Then, after setting up its premise and establishing people’s reactions to it, the story does nothing more until very late in its runtime other than repeating the premise and reactions.

There are no substantive changes in individual relationships until close to the end, and few plot movements that weren’t already been spelt out. And the one that might be game-changing, hinting at a possible past link between characters, is never satisfactorily followed up. Not every detail stacks up, and those hoping for a trademarked Shyamalan twist will also be disappointed, although it’s not quite clear whether he’s intentionally abandoned the last-minute surprise for this movie or simply written one that’s completely foreseeable.

On the plus side, Knock at the Cabin does gain power from Shyamalan’s typically impactful use of the camera, and there are some decent performances from the cast, but this isn’t nearly enough to compensate for its many problems.

Shyamalan’s film begins with a young girl called Wen (Kristen Cui) collecting grasshoppers in the woods of Pennsylvania (the state Shyamalan sets so many films in), with the titular cabin seen in the background. A stranger approaches, his footsteps immensely heavy to her child’s ears, and he’s indeed a mountain of a man who introduces himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista). This giant is amiable with the youngster, but before long he and his three companions—Redmond (Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Adriane (Abby Quinn)—embark on what amounts to a home invasion, a lengthy and one-paced sequence that culminates in them tying up Wen’s fathers Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and stating an extraordinary demand…

Leonard believes the world will end and everyone will die unless this captive family agrees to sacrifice one of its own. (An ultimatum which recalls Alan J. Pakula’s 1982 Sophie’s Choice, and which A.O. Scott in The New York Times rightly points out is also an extreme form of the philosophical Trolley Problem: is actively doing harm worse than passively allowing it to happen?)

Eric and Andrew naturally react with incredulity and assume the real motive is homophobia, but the intruders insist not. “The four of us are here to prevent the apocalypse,” they say, explaining they were brought together from their ordinary lives as a teacher, a nurse, and a cook, by shared visions. The group are friendly enough, at least for invaders demanding one of you dies, but they aren’t budging in their conviction.

For at least a half-hour there’s no change in dynamic, but the strangers eventually try a new way of proving the end is nigh—involving shocking violence, and some well-presented TV news broadcasts. Over time one of Wen’s parents begins to believe them, at least slightly

Meanwhile, flashbacks to earlier points in Eric and Andrew’s lives suggest that one of the gang members may not be everything he seems, and also traces a past transformation in the couple. Early on they were cautious about their relationship, even pretending when visiting the prospective adoptee Wen in an orphanage that they were merely straight friends, but since then they’ve become more assertive gay men and protective of their family.

Though the screenplay forces the cast to utter so many painfully clumsy lines—“I wish with all my broken heart” / “They remind us of all aspects of humanity”—they mostly manage to convince, especially Bautista, Groff, and young Cui. The visual style also provides a welcome distraction from the static narrative, with cinematographers Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer making great use of Shyamalan’s favoured extreme close-ups to create striking imagery—including a suggestion of Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting at one point.

A later action scene is exceptionally well-choreographed, and Knock at the Cabin also successfully weaves in story elements Shyamalan has previously made excellent use of, like the effect of TV news on characters and the importance of their physical isolation.

The movie also touches on several ideas Shyamalan’s visited before, especially in Signs (2002), but also The Happening (2008), Unbreakable (2000) and The Village (2004), notably the dilemma of ordinary people struggling to decide what they believe in extraordinary circumstances. There’s intriguing if muddled Christian subtext too, with the visitors symbolising the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and their captives a Holy Family, of which one has to die to save the world.  

Sadly, all this film does is touch on cool ideas, as if alluding to them will provide profundity or a mythic dimension. As with Old (2021), Knock at the Cabin finds Shyamalan failing to to exploit what he’s set up, and omitting the far darker aspects of Tremblay’s source material doesn’t help. Few filmmakers could make the apocalypse a bore and turn the salvation of humanity into a ho-hum anticlimax, but Shyamalan manages it.

USA CHINA | 2023 | 100 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: M. Night Shyamalan.
writers: M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond & Michael Sherman (based on the book ‘The Cabin at the End of the World’ by Paul Tremblay).
starring: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Rupert Grint,Nikki Amuka-Bird & Ben Aldridge.