Taken on a purely superficial level, director M. Night Shyamalan has kept to his usual remit over the past few years. He has delivered thrillers that are centered around an intriguing idea, pleasing or displeasing viewers with his approach to executing the material. Dive under the surface though, which is easy to do when the surface level doesn’t seem anywhere near as emotional or complex as his best work, and you start to see some worrying ideas (almost propaganda) at the heart of them. I am not here to point these aspects out to everyone, but I do think that Shyamalan is now focusing on his subtextual messaging ahead of straightforward storytelling, which makes it necessary to start acknowledging where he seems to be expending more of his energy.
Knock At The Cabin is a tale of four people who arrive at a cabin and request entry. They are headed up by Leonard (Dave Bautista). The people already in the cabin are Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), and they are blissfully unaware that there is an impending apocalypse, apparently. Leonard and his cohorts have had visions. They don’t want to harm people, but they have been asked to knock on this cabin door and ask those inside to make a sacrifice. If they can choose a loved one to sacrifice then they can save the whole world. That’s hard to believe though, obviously, and the film is essentially a lengthy dialogue in which the believers try to convert the non-believers to their cause.
Adapting a book by Paul Tremblay, Shyamalan and co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman certainly have their work cut out for them, dealing with an implausible scenario that is mostly confined to the one location. They give it an admirable attempt, helped by a cast that deliver on the acting front, but there just isn’t enough mixed in to the plot to distract viewers from the ridiculousness of the central idea. At the risk of moving further away from the source material, this needed to have characters more fleshed out, more debate about the choice to be made, and more ambiguity in the third act.
Shyamalan directs competently, happily keeping viewers in the cabin with the main characters, and I was pleased that he didn’t require his cast to deliver some of their worst performances this time around (as he did with Old), but he doesn’t elevate the middling script. This would arguably work better as a stage play, allowing a focus on the ideas and conversation, but Shyamalan wants a film. He manages to do that, only just, but the end result, if being ranked, sits almost right in the middle of his filmography.
Bautista is quite brilliant in his role, a gentle giant who is as sad about his actions as he is determined to carry them out. He is flanked by Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Abby Quinn, who all do good work. It’s a shame that they aren’t given more screentime, but Bautista is the spokesperson for the group, and that’s how he ends up being the most impressive onscreen presence. Groff and Aldridge are also very good, required to spend most of the movie in a state of fear, and young Cui is a very sweet little girl that you hope will be kept safe from any harm, be it interpersonal or global.
I enjoyed this while it was on. The cast make it work, often being good enough to improve dialogue that could have seemed goofy and ridiculous. That’s all there is to it though. It’s an acting showpiece, directed by someone who seems too distracted to make the most of what could have been a much more impressive, and much more tense, killer thriller premise.
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