M. Night Shyamalan has made some triumphs like The Sixth Sense. He’s delivered some disasters like The Last Airbender. He’s even made some triumphant disasters like Lady in the Water, one of the great unintentional comedies. Knock at the Cabin is a harder Shyamalan joint to classify. It’s an M. Night Shyamalan production through and through with many of the Shyamalanisms that you either learn to love or continue to hate. Either way, it’s balanced by convincing performances, a chilling atmosphere, and a premise worthy of The Twilight Zone. Weirdly enough, the most underwhelming element is the ending, which is usually where Shyamalan leaves the strongest impression, for better or for worse.
After transitioning from WWE to the MCU, Dave Bautista ran the risk of being typecast as the macho comedic relief. However, he’s demonstrated a surprising range in films like Blade Runner 2049, which motivated Shyamalan to cast him here. Bautista plays Leonard, a hulking stranger who shows up at a secluded cabin where Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) are vacationing. Although Leonard is daunting in size, Bautista brings gentleness to the role. For a brief moment, it appears Leonard wouldn’t hurt a fly. He even helps little Wen catch grasshoppers in a field. Within minutes of arriving at the cabin, though, it becomes apparent that Leonard has no choice but to inflict force.
Leonard is joined by three other strangers: a chef named Adriane (Abby Quinn), a nurse named Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and a red-haired redneck named Redmond (Rupert Grint). Armed with blunt weapons, the four don’t intend to harm the family of three… directly. Taking them hostage, they tell the family that the apocalypse is coming. The only way to prevent it is for one of the three to be sacrificed. Andrew, Eric, and Wen naturally think they’re either crazy or part of a homophobic cult. As inexplicable tragedies start taking place around the world, though, the family can’t help but contemplate doing the unthinkable.
Many of Shyamalan’s more dubious tropes are on display: unnecessary extreme closeups, quirky dialogue that doesn’t always mesh with the suspense, a child who’s oddly more sophisticated than any of the adults. The script, which Shyamalan co-wrote with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, might not be the film’s strongest quality. However, the actors all sell it. You believe every person in this unsettling scenario, from the conflicted strangers to the frightened family that doesn’t know what to believe anymore. The premise also paves the way for some genuine edge-of-your-seat moments. Not everything is explained, but the ambiguity works to this story’s advantage. In many respects, Knock at the Cabin is everything that The Happening was trying to be.
Knock at the Cabin might’ve ranked alongside Split as one of Shyamalan’s finest modern efforts if only it ended on a higher note. Although I admittedly haven’t read the source material by Paul G. Tremblay, I am aware of how the novel ends. Without giving too much away, Shyamalan changes some elements that might make the film more accessible to mainstream moviegoers. For those looking for something more challenging, though, it leaves you wanting more. The ending doesn’t ruin the experience, but it does hold Knock at the Cabin back from being the buzzworthy thriller that kept audiences returning to Shyamalan’s best work.