M. Night Shyamalan might be a genius when it comes to the fascination of dealing with original, awe-inspiring filmmaking, as he knows how to toy with audiences’ engagement with fascinating premises brimming with pellucidity and exhilaration. He’s like Shakespeare, but instead, that version combined with a descendent of Satan that thoroughly takes pleasure in guilt-tripping audiences into unbeknownst fears and imaginations within a maze-like direction (perhaps he took inspiration from that jaw-dropping shot in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining).
Knock at the Cabin exemplifies that revelation as Shyamalan, throughout his erratic (dare I say preposterous) film career, locks a family of three into a hermetic puzzle-box environment, governed by some unknown body of rules that don’t reveal themselves until his vintage “twist” in the third act. We have seen similar situations play out, most notably in Signs and The Happening, where global annihilation plays out in a contained atmosphere as the world’s fate takes a backseat (only this time to the family’s survival against four trespassers). Heck, even Old intriguingly brought together various folks on a beach for them to realize their battle was against time. The novelty of Shyamalan’s latest work pits a family against one another, as the trespassers claim they must make “the ultimate sacrifice” or the world will end.
The family of three includes peacekeeping Eric (Jonathan Groff) and his hot-tempered husband Andrew (Ben Aldridge), with their innocent, intellectual daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). They become terrorized by a group of four individuals: Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuda-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint). So what’s the catch exactly? It’s unknown, even amidst the shock, confusion, and violence that unfolds on the screen during the 100-minute runtime.
Such wild demands for a sacrifice beg a multitude of questions, which are so ambiguously answered that you might as well not craft up anymore. Who are these lunatics, and where did they come from? Are Andrew and Eric being targeted for their status as a gay couple and parents of an adopted Chinese daughter? Has God chosen this family to choose the sacrifice in the eyes of witnesses (four strangers)? The only bits of answers we receive are doled-out flashbacks of Eric and Andrew’s early days of their relationship, including their adoption and a vicious attack in a bar. One’s perspective on this will vary considerably, but it becomes another test of one’s endurance due to Shyamalan’s intentions.
In layman’s terms, the feature oddly places heavy stress on some religious zealotry gone bonkers because these four warriors believe the family must save the world or else everyone else suffers. Cue the television for exposition on unthinkable atrocities occurring within the timeframes of each minute lost due to a failure of sacrifice. It’s as if Shyamalan wants to explore the Book of Revelation, The Holy Trinity, or the Execution of God in some mastermind scheme. So, the sexuality and confinement in the woods don’t necessarily matter here, as the film almost persuades you of Leonard’s indifferent, allegorical preachings.
Perhaps that has to do with Bautista’s exceptional performance as a muscular yet earnestly affecting individual whose obstinate attitude carries that pathos in this desolate situation. Groff and Aldridge compliment one another superbly with their perspectives, and Grint gets to shine with a jittery, hotheaded card for a few minutes. The camerawork and editing Shyamalan employs give excellent depth as the actors’ close-ups allow them to attempt to make logic of the situation, and Herdis Stefansdottir’s soundtrack keeps the stakes uneasy. It’s uncanny at times that you genuinely believe Shyamalan had returned to a form of his that once defined his aura when The Sixth Sense caught us off-guard over two decades prior.
However, Knock at the Cabin‘s greatest strength is also a knock on its most significant limitation. The more the claustrophobic story escalates, it meticulously unfolds into another psycho-thriller that’s uneven in tone and doesn’t amount to much once the credits roll except perplexion and frustration. The suspenseful guessing game becomes washed down due to a lack of visceral weight and tension. Maybe that’s not what Shyamalan’s intention was here, as prioritizing a fantastic exercise in filmmaking was a goal that exceeded expectations. But the practicality is viewers came in with the awareness that he was going to pull off some unbelievable twist, whether liked or not, and it ended up feeling like a cop-out.
The result we’re left with is a lacking thriller that could be compared to a lachrymose drama of how a family must fight for their love while terrorized by strangers. Yes, it sometimes works with its sharp angles and thoughtful compelling explanations, but it falls flat once it’s time to tie it all together and the realization that it fails to deviate from its dreary design. And not that Shyamalan needs any further nitpicking here, as his idiosyncratic mix of genius and absurdity is surprisingly bankable by sketching new ideas in today’s modern film environment. Maybe he is an underrated film genius, and audiences have turned a blind eye to his perfecting of subjecting us to unknown horrors while holding onto the power of faith.
Unfortunately, his lack of consistency puts quite a damper on Knock on the Cabin, a feature that stands out better than most of his other mediocre works. Possibly the next one will get Shyamalan a step closer to the roots of his fondly praised 1999 classic.