Written by: M. Night Shyamalan (screenplay) and Steve Desmond & Michael Sherman (screenplay), Paul Tremblay (novel)
Directed by: M. Night Syamalan
Starring: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, and Ben Aldridge
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Save your family or save humanity. Make the choice.
Note: complete and total spoilers follow.
M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin is an inherently paradoxical proposition: here’s one of our least ambiguous directors tackling Paul Tremblay’s Cabin at the End of the World, a novel that thrives on ambiguity. You’d be hard pressed to think of a more ill-fitting pairing, but you also have to admit Shymalan’s presence makes anything intriguing, especially since the likes of Glass and Old have shown that he has no intention of shying away from his filmmaking idiosyncrasies. Personally, I can think of few things more fascinating than watching him have a staring match with material that’s so diametrically opposed to his own work—even if he is the first one to blink.
But he only sort of blinks, and he does it in a very M. Night Shyamalan sort of way, which inspires all the usual disclaimers when it comes to this frequently divisive filmmaker. Somehow, Shyamalan has become a lightning rod for binary reactions: it seems like you either love him or hate him at this point, which is admittedly a much more interesting career arc than simply becoming “the next Spielberg” as Newsweek prophesied 20 years ago. In an era where it feels like everything is test-screened to death, it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker continually bet on himself for better and for worse. Recently, it’s been particularly fascinating to see such a sentimental filmmaker wrestle glimmers of hope from grim source material, and Knock at the Cabin is no exception. In some ways, it feels like the ultimate challenge for Shyamalan, staring the apocalypse in the face and finding a terrible beauty in it, another paradox that proves to be fascinating as it unfolds. And that’s the thing about Shyamalan: his work might be confounding or even downright frustrating, but there’s something interesting about it.
Knock is immediately compelling, opening with a sudden, tense encounter between young Wen (Kristen Cui) and Leonard (Dave Bautista). As she innocently captures butterflies, this stranger approaches bearing a cryptic message: he needs her and her parents' help to carry out an important job—maybe the most important job in the history of the world. When she darts to the cabin with this news, her dads, Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff & Ben Aldridge), are understandably skittish about their daughter talking to a complete stranger. And by the time Leonard comes knocking at their door with three associates, each of them branding weapons, they’re in full panic mode. Negotiations through the door falter, and the quartet violently breaks into the home bearing an odd message: while they haven’t arrived with malice in their hearts, they insist that Eric and Andrew’s family must sacrifice one of their own to stave off the apocalypse the group claims to have witnessed with visions sent from God himself.
That hook—which is essentially the famous “Trolley problem” writ apocalyptically large—is undeniably compelling, and Shyamalan is a natural fit for Tremblay’s ticking-timebomb source material. The plot devices designed to turn the screws remain in place here, most notably the doomsayers’ insistence that Eric and Andrew must make a decision by the end of the following day. Each “no” they give will be met with a sacrifice from Leonard’s group, which will also usher in a catastrophic event, and Shyamalan masterfully orchestrates the harrowing ordeal. He’s always been an excerpt craftsman in this respect because he has an instinctive knack for camera placement, editing, and shaping performances. Knock at the Cabin is impeccably directed in this regard, a ruthlessly efficient orchestration of malice and intrigue that keeps the suspense mounting. If this were a conventional home invasion thriller, it’d be a masterclass of the genre, as Shyamalan—with a notable assist from co-cinematographers Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer—takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, flitting from one corner of the cabin to the other to observe as the characters pinball off of each other. Shayamlan's signature oddball flourishes—quirky dialogue, mannered performances, strange humor—provide an offbeat sense of levity that accents the utter strangeness of this encounter.
Shayamlan’s investment in these characters is also critical. If there’s anything about his work that’s earned those Spielberg comparisons, it’s his ability to anchor stories with compelling performances. This sort of story—one that captures an intimate apocalypse—particularly needs a human dimension to work at all. Tremblay’s hook is only worth a damn if the characters involved are worthwhile, and it’s impressive what everyone involved here does with the scant 95 minutes provided. Groff and Aldrige are especially remarkable considering they spend much of the runtime in captivity, bound to chairs and seething at their captors. A handful of flashbacks fill in the pertinent backstory, capturing pivotal moments in their relationship: coming out to disapproving parents, being assaulted by a barroom bigot, and officially adopting Wen (where one of them pointedly has to pretend to be her uncle).
While one of these flashbacks also ties into Shyamalan’s propensity to connect narrative dots, they also establish exactly why Eric and Andrew are so resistant to this intrusion. Even if these harbingers of doom are telling the truth, it’s easy to understand that this couple has found a happiness the world so fiercely tried to deny them. What, exactly, would they owe to a world or a God that would allow this serenity to be shattered? Far be it from me to make any kind of definitive declaration about this sort of thing, but it’s one of the most touching, genuinely empathetic portraits of queer romance in a studio movie of this magnitude. Whether or not the world is actually ending almost feels immaterial at one point because it’s clear that their world is unraveling, especially when Eric starts to believe these four are prophets of doom.
Shyamalan also reserves a measure of sympathy for this quartet, something that’s understandably divisive given its real-world implications. I’ll address that more in a bit, but this odd portrayal of these maniacs is precisely what sets Knock at the Cabin askew. In any other movie, Dave Bautista and his absurd musculature would be a physically imposing menace; here, he’s soft-spoken and bespectacled, and the tremor in his voice betrays how utterly devastated he is to be carrying out this horrific deed. It’s a tremendous performance, one of the best of his career to this point because it’s underplayed: before Shyamalan lays the truth bare during the final act, it’s not easy to tell if Leonard is a maniac or if he’s truly being compelled by a wrathful god. The only thing for certain is that he’s absolutely haunted by his purpose and conviction. At a certain point, you start to hope he’ll wrest some kind of salvation from this ordeal because he’s utterly tortured. After all, he insists he’s just a second grade teacher hoping to stave off the apocalypse and preserve a world for the children he teaches. Likewise, his compatriots present compelling sob stories: Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a nurse, while Adriane (Abby Quinn) is a single mom who doesn’t want her son to die alongside the rest of humanity.
The most vexing wrinkle here is Redmond, a quirky character that allows Rupert Grint to keep turning in weird performances at the behest of Shyamalan (the two have been collaborating for the past few years on Servant, one of the strangest shows in recent memory). At first, his oddball façade is disarming, and gives you reason to assume, yeah, these four are just nuts—until, suddenly, the façade drops once he’s the first among the group to be sacrificed, and the conviction in his eyes as he faces his death sews some doubt. Further complicating matters is Andrew’s insistence that Redmond is the bigot that bashed a beer bottle over his head years earlier, leading him to assume that he’s hatched some kind of sinister plot to torment him and his husband further. If this is true—and Shyamalan allows this doubt to linger until the final act—then it throws everything into question.
The lingering doubt threaded throughout the first two-thirds of Knock at the Cabin is the other key ingredient driving the intrigue here. Even as their captors show them horrific doomsday footage on television, Andrew and Eric remain skeptical, pointing out that some of the events happened before they laid siege on the cabin, while another show was pre-recorded. Is Leonard anxiously checking his watch because the end is nigh, or is it because he wants to make sure they tune in on time? Naturally, Shyamalan is eager to reveal the truth when airplanes begin crashing from the skies, touching off a messy climax that diverges sharply from Tremblay’s novel. While the book also ultimately makes it clear that the apocalypse is very real, its resolution is more fraught with ambiguity: Eric and Andrew survive, but Wen is accidentally killed in a scuffle. Wanting no part of a world where the sacrifice of their daughter isn’t enough, the couple live on in defiance, unsure if the apocalypse will continue.
That’s not at all the case here, where a willing sacrifice is made, sparing Wen and allowing her to live alongside her lone surviving parent. Before departing from their cabin—now tidily engulfed in flames, presumably smited by god to erase any evidence of this ordeal—Andrew and Wen learn that their four visitors were the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; however, they were also exactly who they claimed to be, a revelation that further complicates the weirdly untidy climax. Shyamalan has never exactly been one to leave dangling threads or lingering doubts, not when he built his entire career upon movies that—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse—that go out of their way to be nice and neat, with major twists accounting for all the plot devices and peculiarities along the way.
It’s odd, then, that Knock at the Cabin largely resists this. Sure, his new ending leaves no doubt that the apocalypse has completely subsided, as Andrew and Wen drop into a nearby diner where the patrons are glued to television reports spreading the good news: planes have landed safely, while the spread of a disease has miraculously slowed down. Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s score swells, seemingly to herald Shyamalan’s typical brand of sentimentality—only, there’s still a strange hush about the diner, where one patron calls their loved ones to check on them, their voice cracking as they keep their eyes affixed to the television. Back in the parking lot, a reprisal of K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes”—one of the family’s favorite songs—has an air of uncertainty about it, almost as if Andrew and Wen can’t decide if is a serendipitous sign that they’ve done the right thing or a cruel reminder of what’s lost. They drive off into the sunset, but it hardly seems triumphant, making this one of the strangest (and, yes, ambiguous!) endings of Shyamalan’s career.
However, either path here takes you into thorny territory. If this ending is supposed to be the happiest outcome possible here—Wen surviving with at least one parent, the apocalypse prevented—then there’s an obviously unsettling implication that these four doomsday prophets (one of them a virulent homophobe) were right. Looking at Knock this way has obviously rankled many, who have made the leap to assuming that Shyamalan is essentially surrendering to the Qanon crowd here, acknowledging that they’re right and that this gay couple’s sacrifice is a necessary casualty to stave off the endtimes. I don’t begrudge anyone who sees it that way, but I have to respectfully disagree with these implications, mostly because it ignores the fact that these four have not chosen this fate.
They don’t strike me as the types who have turned towards message board cults because they feel aggrieved, lost, and lonely, looking to vent their frustration and scapegoating others for their problems. The big reveal that these folks weren’t lying about anything seems to confirm this, and it seems obvious to me that they would have been content to go on about their lives, teaching, nursing, and waitressing if they hadn’t been selected for this terrible ordeal. Naturally, Redmond’s presence is troubling no matter what; however, one of the pivotal flashbacks makes it clear that Eric and Andrew’s altercation with him inspired the latter to take up self-defense and buy a gun—the same gun that his husband eventually shoots him with to stop the end of the world. I also understand anyone who balks at this implication too—that, no matter what, these two can’t escape this fate, and it was somehow hastened by a homophobic encounter.
But in the world and mind of M. Night Shyamalan, it’s yet another instance of the karmic fabric weaving together, just as it did in Unbreakable, Signs, Lady in the Water, and even Split. His work has long held a fascination with a sort of cosmic sense of fate, that everything that’s meant to happen for a particular meaning, and Knock at the Cabin is no different. It’s just that, this time out, everything’s being orchestrated by a ruthless god who demands a blood sacrifice to keep the world going. And this realization is why I can’t agree that the film’s ending is meant to be completely triumphant. Sure, on its face, it’s the best case scenario for the world; however, Andrew and Wen’s entire world has been shattered, and they’ll be cursed to live with the knowledge of this spiteful god for their entire lives. Shyamalan isn’t vindicating the Qanon crowd with this movie—he’s revealing just how unseemly this kind of doomsday prophecy would look if it ever came to pass. We shouldn’t be angry with the messengers here—we should be angry with the deity who cursed them and was perfectly content to destroy a happy family so the world could continue, presumably for its own amusement. Despite taking a detour, Shyamalan’s film arrives in a similarly dark place as Tremblay’s novel, forcing the viewer to confront the same question posed by the book’s ambiguity: what kind of just god allows this to happen? Knock at the Cabin still doesn’t have an answer for that, and that uncertainty is one of the most unsettling suggestions Shyamalan has ever conjured on screen.
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