I’ll never forget seeing The Happening the weekend it came out in 2008. Ditto for The Village four years earlier, which I had to talk myself into liking, after expecting for months to love it. Millions felt the same, and The Village remains Shyamalan’s apex in terms of clout and reputation—forever after, he’d always be something of a joke. I never saw 2006’s Lady in the Water, but The Happening remains one of the funniest and most inexplicable movies I’ve seen. I liked it in a perverse way, just for how completely adrenalized and wildly miscalculated almost every aspect of it was—but, I was never bored! I’m not sure The Village bored me, I was just let down by the twist like everyone else. In the last eight years, ever since The Visit made people pay attention again (including me), film geeks and certain critics have taken on Shyamalan as the studio auteur they can champion. You could do a lot worse, and while I do think Shyamalan has been boxed not just for his bombs but for refusing to move his base of operations outside of Philadelphia—an admirable stance that more American filmmakers should take, considering the dearth of regional cinema—I’m not sure I could ever get behind deep readings of The Visit, Glass, or Split.
Old was a different story. Like I wrote back in the summer of 2021, it marked a new phase in Shyamalan’s work: a middle-aged dad dealing with mortality, a typical Twilight Zone setup made all the more melancholy and resonant because of its release so soon after theaters reopened. Old wasn’t just about a beach that makes you old—it was about what it’s like to grow old and watch friends, family, and strangers die, all while you’re powerless to stop it. Shyamalan finally made a movie about something that everyone goes through, not just Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson.
Knock at the Cabin is another hit whose real story is far more compelling than its basic plot: Kristen Cui plays the adopted daughter of Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge, all three vacationing in the woods. The movie opens with the girl collecting grasshoppers, and suddenly Dave Bautista approaches from the woods. Hesitant, she still talks with him, but eventually she runs inside, and the husbands and their daughter are confronted by Bautista and three otherwise random people played by Rupert Grint, Abby Quinn, and Nikki Amuka-Bird. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that Bautista explains that they’ve come to the cabin “to the prevent the apocalypse.” One of the three family members, according to these loons, must be sacrificed by one of their relatives… or else the world will end. Bautista describes visions they all had, very biblical. Figuring they’ve been targeted by homophobes, both men refuse to do anything, and the gang begins killing themselves, unleashing one “plague” after another: 8.4 magnitude earthquakes off the coast of Oregon, killer viruses in children, commercial airplanes falling out of the sky.
Shyamalan never resolves the mystery, and although by the end it appears that these people were telling the truth, it doesn’t matter—this is a movie about all of the insane bigots and homophobes making life a living hell for gay and transgender people in states like Texas, Florida, and Arizona. As a love story, as a family story, it’s ripped from the headlines, and I don’t agree that Shyamalan “has a dialogue problem”—this is his most gripping film since the 2000s. If Old was wistful and contemplative, Knock at the Cabin is a blunt but powerful allegory about the persecution of gay people in America in the 2020s. Bautista also distinguishes himself here as a real presence, far from the cookie-cutter presence of Dwayne Johnson, the man he’s always compared to. Rupert Grint also gets his first real performance of any note since the Harry Potter franchise ended, and all of the “four horsemen” clearly believe in what they’re doing—I don’t care that the apocalypse is never explained. I guess “message boards” are more reliable than I thought?
At the same time, Knock at the Cabin is another film starring gay characters that must have one of them die at the end. That’s not retrograde per se, but Groff’s concussion caused “revelation” remains as private and vague as those of the four horsemen. Why did he have to die?
Never mind, just go see the movie—I really don’t care that the ending doesn’t make sense; it’s that good.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith