Knock at the Cabin Puts Shyamalan Back in His Wheelhouse, with a Twist

Kristen Cui as WEN in KNOCK AT THE CABIN

M. Night Shyamalan returns to what some might consider his wheelhouse with Knock at the Cabin. This small ensemble drama has much in common with his 2002 science fiction family drama, Signs. With a small cast and a remote setting, the story features one family as they try to stick together in a world turned suddenly treacherous. But don't go into Knock or any Shyamalan movie believing you know what to expect. Shyamalan tries to recreate himself with each and every film – a fact that has fascinated and often alienated filmgoers for years. Based on the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, Knock at the Cabin is adapted, directed, and produced by Shyamalan, with assist on the screenplay from Steven Desmond and Michael Sherman.

When Shyamalan entered the public discourse with the 1999 film, The Sixth Sense, critics hailed him as the next Spielberg or a successor to Hitchcock. But what people forget about Hitchcock is that he constantly reinvented and challenged himself. He always stuck with the suspense genre, but he dabbled in 3D, limited-setting movies, dream sequences, animation, one-take movies, remakes, and different types of cameras. Shyamalan wants to be that way, too. He constantly pushes on the boundaries of what people expect and want him to do. And while this tendency has caused him to take some wild swings, at least he's never boring or predictable. Shyamalan goes all in on his ideas, and we can appreciate that.

Perhaps Mel Gibson said it best in Signs: "Swing away, Merrill."

[L-R]: Nikki Amuka-Bird as SABRINA, Abby Quinn as ADRIANE, Rupert Grint as REDMOND, and Dave Bautista as LEONARD in KNOCK AT THE CABIN

Married couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) whisk their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cuit) away on a peaceful getaway to a cabin on the lake. But their idyllic vacation turns nightmarish when four strangers converge on their home and demand that they sacrifice one family member to save the world.

While Signs took time to build character development and suspense over the course of the film, Knock throws our family in danger immediately, creating a sense of imminent dread. We, along with the family, feel the fear of strangers entering the home. We don't know what the strangers want or if they even mean what they say. Are they there for legitimate reasons or to torture the family? Andrew, in particular, suspects the latter because they are a gay couple and are used to being targeted for this difference.

What looks like a home invasion thriller quickly turns more thought-provoking and philosophical once we realize the group comes without malicious intent. Leonard (Dave Bautista) asks the family to make a voluntary choice, accompanied by nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), line cook Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint). While Redmond comes off as surly, the rest of the group exhibits care and distress over the sacrifice they ask the family to make. Viewers looking for a visceral and gruesome horror experience will be sorely disappointed. Even the most violent events take place slightly off-camera, allowing the squeamish to breathe easy.

[L-R] Ben Aldridge as ANDREW, Kristen Cui as WEN, Jonathan Groff as ERIC

Shyamalan is much more interested in seeing this quandary as a thought experiment that viewers can contemplate. Andrew and Eric must choose to sacrifice one of their number to save the rest of humanity from destruction. They will survive if they don't make this decision, but everyone else will perish. At first, they can refute the charge and see what consequences result. But as time elapses and the evidence begins to corroborate the invaders' story, they must decide, as individuals and as a couple, what they believe and in what type of world they want to raise their daughter.

The decision to pivot away from suspense and towards the philosophical and spiritual implications of such a situation will alienate many viewers. Eschewing significant character development, we have no time to bond with these characters or form care for them outside of the care we would have for any fellow human being. Shyamalan attempts to supplement our knowledge with sporadic flashbacks, but we glean only the scarcest details. In addition, Shyamalan must counter the lack of suspense with enough compelling material to carry the story through the events that mostly occur in real-time. Luckily Shyamalan keeps the pace brisk and doesn't try to wax philosophical for too long.

[L-R] Dave Bautista as LEONARD, Abby Quinn as ADRIANE, and Nikki Amuka-Bird as SABRINA in KNOCK AT THE CABIN

Possibly the gravest sin of the film is that after setting up this intriguing scenario, Shyamalan decides to tell viewers exactly what this means and how they should feel about the situation. And while this adds an unexpected spiritual weight I appreciated and didn't expect, if that's not your cup of tea, the message comes off as quite preachy.

Still, the movie clocks in at 100 minutes and offers some intriguing camera work from Shyamalan. Close-up shots of characters' faces keep our focus on each character's humanity. We see their emotional agony in intimate detail. The production design makes good use of the natural setting with lighting choices, heightening both the isolated location and the discord of an invasion in such a peaceful spot. Death and doom seem far away, yet the fate of the world comes crashing into one tiny cabin.

Skip if you want thrills; watch if you like allegories and symbolism in your films. If you are looking for more content on M. Night Shyamalan, tune in to this special podcast where two critics and I go through his filmography.

Release info: In theaters February 3, 2022

Final score: 3.5 out of 5