Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint
Knock at the Cabin is one of M. Night Shyamalan’s clearest tributes to his hero Alfred Hitchcock in two major ways: it is a high-speed thriller, and it works. Naturally, there are hidden depths to uncover with all of Shyamalan’s films, but Knock at the Cabin is one of his more enjoyably immediate and visceral moviegoing experiences, even without all of the heady stuff. In fact, when you start to peel back the layers of what he is saying with this new film, it almost lets the air out of the whole thing. After the admitted goofiness of his last film Old (2021), which I also enjoyed, Knock at the Cabin works in a more intense, edge-of-your-seat sort of way.
When 7-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) is outside of her family’s wooded cabin catching grasshoppers to study, she is the appropriate amount of trepidatious at the sudden appearance of the large, hulking Leonard (Bautista) wanting to make friends. He is soft-spoken, spectacled, and energetically nothing like the screen persona we have come to know from the actor playing the role. An innocent conversation turns to a game of questions which leads to Leonard dropping cryptic hints about something he has to do with Wen and her family that is causing him dread. It isn’t long before Leonard has spooked young Wen, and she runs back to the cabin into the arms of her parents, Eric (Groff) and Andrew (Aldridge).
Inside the cabin, Wen warns Eric and Andrew that things are about to take a turn. Leonard and a small group of friends, who she also quickly spotted in the woods, are on their way to the cabin to drag the family into whatever they have planned. Leonard and three others start by knocking and politely asking to be let in. Eric and Andrew, armed with only the knowledge that this man scared their daughter, refuse entry. They look out the window and notice that each member of this group stalking their porch has a weapon in hand. Eventually (and this is nothing the trailers and ads haven’t given away already), the group forces their way into the house and takes the family hostage where they can explain their mission.
I will tread lightly here to avoid going into details vital to the plot and effectiveness of the film. Leonard reveals that the family will have to make an impossible decision to avoid a worldwide apocalypse that will destroy all of mankind. He has been plagued with horrific visions of what will happen, and these visions are shared by his associates. Alongside Leonard, we have Redmond (Grint) an aggressive, antsy brute from Massachusetts. There is also Sabrina (Amuka-Bird), a patient and meek nurse who tends to Eric’s wound when he is concussed during the initial scuffle. And rounding out the group is Adriane (Abby Quinn), a young cook with a sweet demeanor. They all plead their case to Eric and Andrew before a series of plagues begin to hit that will start demolishing large groups of people. Intercut with this main story are flashbacks of Eric and Andrew’s adoption of Wen along with some previous rough times in their relationship history, which have greater significance as the story unfolds.
Knock at the Cabin is not entirely without certain typical Shyamalan pitfalls. As excellent as the man is as a director and visual stylist, he tends to struggle writing convincing dialogue at times, which can make certain important scenes threaten to fall flat. He is fortunate to have a terrific cast of very capable actors who are better suited to disguise the clunkiness than some of the actors in his past films. As the couple is forced with a terrible choice, Groff and Aldridge are dialed in, convincing, and ultimately very touching as the aggrieved couple. Grint, Amuka-Bird, and Quinn are all effective in tapping into the creepiness and severity of their characters, but Bautista really impresses, showing something, unlike anything that we’ve seen from him before. All of the roles in the film are tricky in their own ways, and the ensemble cast knocks it out of the park.
After Infinity Pool and now Knock at the Cabin, I am genuinely excited to see what 2023 has in store for us in the thriller genre. February has just begun, and we are already off to an excellent start. In general, it is nice to be able to see smart, engrossing films like this early in the year, which used to just be the dumping ground for movies that studios had little or no faith in. Shyamalan, of course, would never fit that description. He makes risky films that are covered with his auteur trademarks, for better or worse. Here he has concocted a lean thriller that is perhaps more fun to experience in the moment than to ponder on later, but its immediate power is hard to deny.
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