Film reviews and more since 2009

Knock at the Cabin (2023) review

Dir. M. Night Shyamalan

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Adapting a novel was probably one of the smartest things M. Night Shyamalan could do after leaving most underwhelmed by Old. I remarked how his proclivity for bold twists leaves the viewer dubious with anticipation. You expect a twist for 90 minutes, and when it, sometimes inevitably, disappoints, you want to throw the whole film away. In the case of Old, I would’ve preferred to be unburdened by those final 15 minutes.

Knock at the Cabin lacks that out-of-the-blue climax that leaves you gobsmacked. Instead, it’s a lean, entrapping 95-minute thriller, filled with some fine character work by a handful of actors who fully believe the dialog they’re reciting. Evidently, this is what happens when Shyamalan works from existing text. He’s afforded an in-tact narrative and can cast his usual themes of mortality, physical and mental claustrophobia with characters confronted with ostensibly impossible moral dilemmas.

All is applicable in this adaptation of The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul G. Tremblay. The film revolves around Eric (Jonathan Groff, The Matrix Resurrections) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge, Spoiler Alert), a gay couple on vacation in a cabin in the middle of the woods with their adopted daughter, Wen (cute-as-a-button Kristen Cui), in tow. Nothing untoward could possibly happen.

Except something does. The nuclear family is visited by four mysterious strangers, led by a gentle-giant named Leonard (Dave Bautista), all brandishing medieval weaponry. For the most part, all of them are kind yet blunt, and Leonard makes for the ideal leader given his soft-spoken demeanor. His associates are Redmond (Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Adriane (Abby Quinn), and all of them harbor the same shared vision of imminent apocalypse. They believe the only way to stop it is if Eric, Andrew, and Wen make the decision to kill one member of their family. Their sacrifice, they say, will prevent the end of the world.

None of the four can kill themselves and nobody can commit the murder for them. Over time, Leonard asks if they’re willing to make the sacrifice. If they’re not, one of the four kills themselves and something traumatic and irreversible will happen to the world. Nearly eight billion lives are at stake. One specific sacrifice can change that.

Unlike some of Shyamalan’s works, which can sometimes invite comedy into the mix (intentionally or otherwise), Knock at the Cabin is no laughing matter. This is a grimly serious piece of work, and the actors sell that almost immediately. Groff and Aldridge are a believable couple, opposite personalities bearing a shared love for one another and their young daughter. But it’s Bautista who demands all eyes on him whenever he is speaking. In what could be his finest hour of acting yet, Bautista conveys fatherly sternness and gentleness, often in the same beat. The time has come to cease typecasting him as an unconventional presence. In recent years, he’s developed laudable range; here, he demonstrates captivating affect.

Shyamalan (working off a screenplay penned by himself, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman) shoots Knock at the Cabin with inventive style. He favors extreme closeups that unnerve, especially when married to Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s score, which raises the temperature of the room in seconds. Even with a structure that can fall prey to being redundant, Shyamalan and company retain the tension they create for much of the film’s runtime. The often-beleaguered director has never found a premise he couldn’t milk, for better or for worse. Thankfully, his latest is a case of the former.

I never read Tremblay’s novel, but out of curiosity, I read the complete synopsis on Wikipedia. Shyamalan altered the second-half of the story significantly. Surprisingly, he rejected some of the novel’s inherent ambiguity in favor of linearity and a definitive conclusion. It’s not the worst decision, but it might’ve indeed robbed us of a more impactfully dark ending. But even with his most cynical stories, Shyamalan remains a card-carrying optimist. He’s at such an intriguing phase in his career, and still has a couple decades left to continue churning out stories worthy of being told. I’ve showed up even when the pickings proved to be slim. I’m not stopping anytime soon.

NOTE: Knock at the Cabin is now playing exclusively in theaters.

Starring: Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Dave Bautista, Kristen Cui, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quin, and Rupert Grint. Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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