Ever since M. Night Shyamalan returned from post-After Earth obscurity in 2015 with The Visit, I’m glad the director is back and making films that people are going to see, even though the films aren’t much. Glass and Split, for instance, were terrible, while Old couldn’t move beyond an interesting premise. With Knock at the Cabin, the best movie of his comeback era, Shyamalan has delivered a film with a great idea and takes it seriously. It doesn’t bring everything together, but this is still Shyamalan operating at a high level again.
Knock at the Cabin has Shyamalan adapting a novel—Paul G. Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World—and working with two co-writers. The result is a wonderfully-structured story, although fans of the book are up in arms about certain changes. The premise is intriguing. A same-sex couple (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) are on a vacation in a cabin, in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, with their young daughter (Wen). They’re soon visited by four invaders, led by Leonard (David Bautista).
But this isn’t a standard home-invasion thriller, because the invaders have a special purpose. They tell the family that one of them has to kill one of the others, and if they don’t, the world will end. (The rest of the invasion foursome consists of Nikki Amuda-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint. The Harry Potter actor plays against type as a loathsome scumbag, just as he does on Shyamalan’s Apple show Servant.) The couple immediately concludes that their invaders must be homophobic hate-crime perpetrators, out to destroy a non-traditional family unit, but not long after, there’s reason to believe that planes really are falling out of the sky and people dying around the world. And that’s what’s great about this premise: The tension is in choosing between the possibilities that the invaders are telling the truth or lying.
In arguments about Knock at the Cabin, some detractors have denounced it as a “faith-based” film, or even “reactionary.” I’m won’t go that far, but the film is playing with some ideas that have their roots in the Book of Revelation. And that’s not anything new from Shyamalan; his third film, Signs, more than 20 years ago, starred Mel Gibson as a former priest whose rediscovery of his faith plays a key role in the denouement of the film. The most impressive performance in the film is by Bautista, the ex-WWE wrestler. Here, he’s playing a guy who’s incredibly reserved, for a 350-pound muscle-bound dude who breaks into a house and spends most of the film talking about the end of the world. Groff, the Broadway and Glee veteran, has become a surprisingly versatile character actor, while Eldridge, so effective in the recent, underseen Spoiler Alert, also masters a tricky part.
M. Night Shyamalan has never reached the heights of his earlier films The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but Knock at the Cabin is a welcome step in the right direction.