Director M. Night Shyamalan may have burst onto the movie scene on a high with The Sixth Sense, but since then his career has been a little up and down. For every Unbreakable there has been a The Last Airbender. With the smash success of Split, audiences had hoped that he was back on steady ground, but then came 2021’s Old, which was another wobble. All hope then rests on his new project Knock at the Cabin.
As with Old, Shyamalan has looked to other authors for inspiration for his story. Old was an adaptation of Frederik Peeters and Pierre Oscar Lévy’s graphic novel Sandcastle, Knock at the Cabin is a reworking of Paul Tremblay’s book of the same name. The plot revolves around a family of three: young girl Wen (Kristen Cui) and her fathers, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). The trio are enjoying a relaxing family vacation in a secluded cabin in the woods until a strange man, Leonard (Dave Bautista) arrives. Accompanied by three associates, Leonard has a bleak proposition for the family – choose to sacrifice one of their own, or trigger the apocalypse.
Knock at the Cabin forgoes the usual set-up of getting to known characters in favour of jumping straight in. The movie opens with an exchange of words between Wen and Leonard but quickly escalates into the home invasion scenario. By forgoing the normal establishing of characters, Shyamalan hits the deck running with the story. Caught by surprise, the audience has no choice but to get immediately swept up in the dilemma. Furthermore, by not properly introducing anyone the viewer does not pre-form alliances to any characters, an integral factor in the journey of the film.
Despite its high stakes sounding premise much of Knock at the Cabin is subdued and restrained. There are a lot of conversations. Eric and Andrew going back and forth with their captors as they try to make sense of their situation. Knock at the Cabin rests upon a delicate see-saw as the audience, like Eric and Andrew, try to figure out if Leonard and company are telling the truth. The information they are faced with is extreme but as ‘evidence’ mounts up the viewer is tasked with picking their own side. It’s a similar formula to the Devil (2010) which Shyamalan wrote. In Devil characters had to work out who inside the lift might be the devil, here the conundrum is whether the world is truly ending? And if so, can I sacrifice someone I love to save billions?
Adaptations are never under any obligation to hold close to the source, but as he did with Old, Shyamalan has made some big deviations from the text. Some of these changes are severe enough that they will likely trigger some backlash from those that truly love Tremblay’s novel. For those unaware of the book, Knock at the Cabin is a fine home invasion thriller. Fine is the operative word though as, although Shyamalan tries hard, most aspects of the film just feel a little flat. The biggest cause of this feeling directly links to changes from the book meaning that even the unschooled will subconsciously sense that the film is lacking in some way.
One area where Knock at the Cabin isn’t lacking however, is with the performances. All the cast hold attention and imbue their characters with enough substance to arouse interest. It is young Kristen Cui and Dave Bautista that really shine though. The pair are the first two characters seen on screen, and right from their friendly exchange about grasshoppers, they set the film alight. As the film progresses each gets better, Cui demonstrating a mature sense of commitment for someone yet to reach double figures. Bautista is sensational as the gentle giant turned tortured kidnapped. For years the actor has been quietly carving out a career to be jealous of. He consistently works with quality filmmakers and makes really interesting choices in his projects. In Leonard he may just have found a character to shirk from his most popular role of Guardians of the Galaxy’s Drax. Whereas that character allows Bautista to flex his comedy muscles, Leonard requires more calm, precision and torment and he truly knocks it out of the park.
Given the nature of the narrative in Knock at the Cabin, the film goes into some dark places. World-ending disasters that typically form a Roland Emmerich title litter the cabin’s television screen. These images alone are confronting, but what happens inside the cabin is far more disturbing. Leonard and his team are committed to going to extreme lengths to prove that what they believe is true. These acts of devotion are blunt and brutal and although Shyamalan is careful to cut away at the last moment, the impact of the actions remains.
A far more cohesive and serious movie than Old, Knock at the Cabin is a step in the right direction for Shyamalan. There are still some story niggles and one can’t help but feel that the director is holding back in places. He doesn’t quite make full use of the setting for one. There are plenty of single situation films in the world and whilst most maximise that location, Shyamalan is content to let the characters’ dialogue speak for themselves. The cast all turn in great performances, but a little more visual variety would sweeten the pot. As with any Shyamalan film, it is in the ending that Knock at the Cabin will fail or succeed. This time, that success will depend on the viewer’s own feelings on the direction that the story takes.
A footstep back on the right track, Shyamalan gets a career best performance from Dave Bautista and generates some great moments. However Knock at the Cabin deviates from the source material so much that even those who haven’t read it can feel the tonal and directional shift. The result leaves an element of disappointment, the intensity of which is rooted in how closely aligned to Paul Tremblay’s material the viewer is. With Knock at the Cabin Shyamalan moves back into the territory of good movies. There’s a great amount of tension on screen, and some excellent performances from the cast. However, Shyamalan doesn’t go as hard as the story could, and so the viewer is ultimately left feeling a little underwhelmed.
Knock at the Cabin is out on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital now.
This review was first published on THN.