M. Night Shyamalan Proudly Presents… the end of the World?
DIRECTED BY M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN/2023
The boxed-up spiritual brutality that surges through the whole of M. Night Shyamalan’s R-rated Knock at the Cabin is something of a corker, either scattershot to a great fault. Either that or this is one of the most bleakly pointed mainstream films in a long while. In the case of the latter, raw nihilism would be preferable.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At its core, Knock at the Cabin (screenplay by Shyamalan and Steve Desmond, based on the book The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay) is a home invasion horror flick. A home invasion (vacation cabin invasion, to be exact) horror flick gussied up just a bit with some great performances by actors who, let’s face it, would ordinarily steer clear of this kind of thing if the name “Shyamalan” hadn’t come up on their incoming caller i.d. That list of talent is top-loaded with Guardians of the Galaxy star Dave Bautista as the world’s nicest home invader and Hamilton and Frozen star Jonathan Groff as one of the three unsuspecting vacationers taken hostage. Also in the mix are Ben Aldridge as Groff’s significant other, Kristen Cui as their adorable daughter, and Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint as fellow home invaders. Other than the occasional newscaster on TV, these are the only people in the film.
More low-key Haneke than stylistically Spielberg or Friedkin, Knock at the Cabin succeeds in leaving one with palpably unsettled feelings. Some of these feelings are rooted in the plethora of global anxieties that have run rampant in the past several years. Others may lie in how Shyamalan chooses to go about his survival/horror business. With his glory days (The Sixth Sense; Unbreakable) now far into the rear-view mirror, the filmmaker continues his lower profile run of horror features (The Visit; Old) as he attempts to go moderately progressive. He does so by incorporating a gay couple with an adopted daughter as his protagonists.
First we meet six-year-old Wen (Cui), just going about her six-year-old business of catching grasshoppers in a jar, naming them, and logging their behaviors with colored pencils. From far off in the woods comes a tattooed and shluby brick wall of a man, Leonard (Bautista). In a series of weirdly giant closeups of each of their faces, Leonard engages Wen in a gentle chat, making a quick friend of her. At least, until his three friends show up… bearing most sinister weaponry. Just before that, Leonard hesitates to tell Wen that his heart is breaking because of what he must do today. And he’s nothing if not sincere.
Soon enough, Wen’s family vacation is indeed ruined by these people. Her two dads, Eric and Andrew (Groff and Aldridge, maybe too physically similar to one another) are tied to chairs in their extremely remote rental cabin, and given an incredibly dire ultimatum: voluntarily sacrifice one of their family members- like, now– or be personally responsible for allowing the Biblical end of the world to happen. The end is nigh, they believe, and there is no other way. There are several deadline thresholds for this sacrifice, but each time they refuse, an apocalyptic plague is unleashed upon the Earth. As Knock at the Cabin goes on, TV reports show of the latest horrendous global crisis unfolding. But surely all this must be orchestrated…? Eric and Andrew quite aggressively cling to the proven tenets of logic and reason, in that these four intruders are obviously not well.
Or… are they? With the exception of Grint’s violently unstable Redmond, there’s plenty to indicate that these four intruders are caring and sensitive individuals. Except for, you know, the whole weapons-wielding home (cabin) invasion mission. Compelled and guided by ostensibly supernatural visions, these people have gone to great lengths to pursue this last-ditch attempt at world-saving terrorism. Although Shyamalan’s camera veers away from the most gruesome and bloody actions, this whacked-out Kobayashi Maru scenario nevertheless manages to persist in instilling dread. Maybe because there’s an actual small child on hand for all of this? (Seriously, how did Shyamalan go about directing Cui’s traumatized performance? As resilient as kids are, even explaining this situation to her could instill trauma. Simply for that, Knock at the Cabin is hard to watch).
If one were to really knock Knock at the Cabin, Shyamalan’s clunky and even questionable attempt at queer representation would fall into the strike zone the fastest. Though Shyamalan, and by extension, his characters, are figuratively bending over backwards to approve of Eric and Andrew’s relationship (even the zealot Leonard is all in, referring to it as “beautiful”), we sense the screenplay’s strain… which translates to some level of internalized discomfort. It’s fair to wonder why it’s these very specific people who are at the crux of the final judgement. Suffice to say that soon enough, no one is remembering those poor jarred-up grasshoppers, so suddenly abandoned in the field.
It is quite understandable for LGBTQ+ people as well as end times theologians to take issue with Knock at the Cabin for entirely different reasons. (Since when does the Bible take the position that the end of days is an altogether bad thing? Once all the plagues and seals and trumpets and hallucinatory whatnot are played out, it’s the Millennial Reign of Christ on Earth, for crying out loud). There’s a robust compare/contrast to be done between Shyamalan’s differently “faith based” Signs (2002) and this one. But for now, let’s leave it by specifying that the performers truly carry this heavy load of a film. Groff, Aldridge, and Cui break our hearts at times, and Bautista in this lead role is truly a… revelation.