Review: ‘Knock at the Cabin’ twists the home invasion horror
Beat. Beat. It’s the dead of winter (usually the doldrums in cinemas) and it’s a pleasant relief to be able to push open the door and see M. Night Shyamalan standing there with his nearly annual batch of high-concept thrillers.
It’s the dead of winter (usually the doldrums in cinemas) and it’s a pleasant relief to be able to push open the door and see M. Night Shyamalan standing there with his nearly annual batch of high-concept thrillers. His last “Old,” about vacationers trapped on a private beach where aging is accelerated — sort of a high-speed “White Lotus” — was fittingly released in the summer. But this quieter, gloomier time of year seems perfect for Shyamalan to burst in with his signature brand of big-screen bunkers and some new twists on the age-old question, “Who’s there?”
Like every previous Shyamalan film, Knock at the Cabin, which hits theaters on Friday, is also an exciting departure. Playful setup? To verify. Bad spiritualism? You bet. But as a self-contained, well-directed thriller – after the knock, the film takes place almost entirely in a remote cabin – Shyamalan’s latest film works in an appealingly simple and pared-down way.
We have our cabin, our small cast of characters, and most importantly, our absurd premise. Though Shyamalan’s films often flirt with higher powers and existential conundrums, nothing reigns supreme in his cinematic universe than The Concept. And in the gripping “Knock at the Cabin,” he carefully teases it, exploits it, and dutifully follows it to its final conclusion at the command of a seasoned pro.
Just outside a cabin in a wooded forest, 7-year-old Gwen (Kristen Cui) collects grasshoppers in a glass jar. “I’m just going to find out about you for a while,” she says to one as she slides it into the jar. Shyamalan also collects samples for examination in a hermetically sealed jar. You can walk straight out of the forest. A hulking, bespectacled man (Dave Bautista) strides towards Gwen, politely introducing himself as Leonard, and chatting amiably, occasionally glancing over his shoulder. Then he says he’s heartbroken about why he’s there. He describes it as “perhaps the most important job in the history of the world”.
Before you exclaim “Podiatry”! Leonard’s job turns out to be a little scarier. He and three others, soon emerging from the forest as well, are there, as Leonard patiently explains, to give Gwen’s parents a choice that will determine the fate of the world. After forcing their way into the cabin, Leonard – flanked by Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Redmond (Rupert Grint) and Adriane (Abby Quinn) – informs Gwen’s two fathers, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). – You must make a sacrifice to stave off the global apocalypse. Everyone has entered the cabin after all-consuming visions – like distorted versions of those that occupy the characters in Close Encounters of the Third Kind – of the doom that awaits if the family in this random cabin doesn’t find one of their own within hours kill.
Unlike last year’s Barbarian, this isn’t another sobering example of the dangers lurking in the ill-chosen Airbnb (although I won’t click Shyamalanian Allegory on all future bookings henceforth). This, like most of Shyamalan’s schemes, is a sincere metaphorical claim. Which is more important: saving the family or the world?
There are, of course, reasons to be suspicious of strangers showing up at your vacation rental begging for blood to spare humanity. Are you delusional? Has this gay couple been targeted? Don’t their demands sound a bit like today’s insane attackers? Eric and Andrew feel the same kind of brutality they’ve experienced all their lives as gay men. Flashbacks to her past, including moments of happiness and pain, suggest this lurid episode is part of a larger narrative of a loving family forged against a harsh world. “Always together” is the couple’s mantra.
But the way the four invaders speak contradicts that possibility. You seem genuinely concerned for the well-being of the family. They identify as normal people, some with families of their own, reluctantly but necessarily performing a duty. They also make their own sacrifice. Bautista is more cute than menacing in one of his best performances, even while wielding a heavy weapon. Amuka bird is also a touchingly sensitive presence.
The performances are compelling all round, and Shyamalan captivatingly stages the intense standoff as blood begins to flow and televised disasters mount. The story, adapted from Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World with a notable change at the end, cleverly reverses the home invasion thriller.
There are undoubtedly deeper avenues of exploration that remain unexamined. But there’s also B-movie fun that deviates from horror convention, and even some of the director’s own trademarks. Shyamalan doesn’t pump out the violence, nor does he rely on plot twists to advance Knock at the Cabin. Instead, the film functions as a brutal, neatly distilled morality play that plays with fatalism, family and climate change allegory. What makes Shyamalan’s film stand out the most is the question of whether some things are more important than family. In big-screen apocalyptic spectacles, family is almost always the last and most constant refuge. This could be an obstacle.
“Knock at the Cabin,” a Universal Pictures release, was rated R by the Motion Picture Association for Violence and Language. Running time: 100 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
Jake Coyle, The Associated Press