One of the hallmarks of M. Night Shyamalan’s films is that he seems to be a big believer in destiny and fate. Much of “Signs” was a religious thriller based around fate and destiny. With “Knock at the Cabin” he approaches the same plot elements, all while instilling much of the ambiguity he’s well known for. That works for and against “Knock at the Cabin” because while I was satisfied with his newest genre effort, I was ultimately left feeling like the finale left everything in the air, and not as neatly packed as he might have thought it was.
Based on Paul Tremblay’s award-winning novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” while vacationing at a remote cabin in the woods, young Wen and her parents Eric and Andrew are taken hostage by four armed strangers who demand they make an unthinkable choice to avert the apocalypse. They must sacrifice one of their trio or else risk unleashing an unstoppable apocalypse on the planet. Confused, scared and with limited access to the outside world, the three bystanders must decide what they believe before all is lost.
Much of “Knock at the Cabin” relies on what we the audience is willing to believe and what our characters believe. Are we witnessing Stockholm Syndrome? Is this all group hysteria? Is there really an apocalypse unfolding before our very eyes or is it one big coincidence? Are there such things as coincidences? “Knock at the Cabin” works within Shymalan’s strengths never quite working with or against his audience; he delivers a lot of plot points that are ultimately weaponized against us and our protagonists. There’s an inherent sense of terror that unfolds with every moment, as our trio of inadvertent victims are given the horrible task of having to sacrifice one of their own.
With every hour Shyamalan turns the screws on us, heightening the terror. What’s worse is that our villains of the piece are about as plain and unassuming as possible. That’s thanks to the genuinely human performances by the foursome that act as the centerpiece for the narrative. Dave Bautista in particular is fantastic in the role, playing the gentle giant Leonard who is burdened with his knowledge of an imminent apocalypse. Much of what he and his group know is dealt in small increments to the audience, offering us room to debate among ourselves what we’re witnessing. I imagine the conversation behind “Knock at the Cabin” will be very heated as even when everything seems matter of fact, there are still the lingering doubts.
Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge do a wonderful job of playing the married couple pulled in to this horrific situation. Shyamalan uses flash backs as exposition, allowing us to learn about their relationship, and how trauma has played a big part in their lives. This also involves an incident in a bar involving a hate crime, and Andrew’s ultimate decision to buy a firearm. Kristen Cui is also very good in her first role as daughter Wen who is unsure what exactly is transpiring, even when it all seems so crystal clear in the end. She manages to garner great chemistry with everyone in the cast, and adds another plot point in the film’s conflict that may or may not be crucial to the resolution.
“Knock at the Cabin” is one of Shyamalan’s stronger, more provocative genre entries, one that will likely be dissected for a long time.