‘Knock at the Cabin’
a review of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film
Shyamalan’s back! Returning from a four-year hiatus, auteur M. Night Shyamalan’s “Knock at the Cabin” is his best work in years. Through the film, based on the bestselling novel “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul Tremblay, Shyamalan transforms the source material into a story that is distinctly his. He attacks many of the themes that have defined his career. As Shyamalan’s films unfold, the audience is forced to grapple with belief in the supernatural. Each story, from “Unbreakable” to “Split,” has in some way valorized belief and faith. He consistently requires his characters to go through a renewal of faith to survive their stories. For example, in “Unbreakable,” security guard David Dunn needed to believe in his own powers to figure out his place, and in “Split,” our antagonist Kevin — who suffers from multiple-split personality disorder experiences — transformation into the Beat was only possible through belief in his own abilities. This recent addition to Shyamalan’s collection of films is no different; it is the natural continuation of his career.
“Knock at the Cabin” is a concise, tight thriller that carefully uses its unique cast to deliver a story that leaves the viewer locked-in for the whole experience.The plot is pretty straightforward. On vacation in an unnamed forest, a gay couple — played by Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge — and their child are trapped in a cabin by a small group led by the hulking leader, Leonard, played by Dave Bautista. Once subdued, Leonard presents the family with a choice, one that risks the fate of the world: they must choose to sacrifice one of their own to prevent the apocalypse. If they do not, they are told that they will doom the world to a series of cataclysmic plagues. Isolated in this cabin, they need to decide whether to trust Leonard and make the impossible decision or not.
Bautista makes the film. His unique physicality as a former WWE wrestler who is as large as a mountain presents an interesting dichotomy between our expectations of how a character who looks like that would act and his tremendously empathetic performance. It brings to mind the performances of Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator” or Sylvester Stallone in “Rambo.” Working against our own instincts as audience members to distrust such a threatening physical form, Bautista forces us to trust Leonard, and by extension, his vision of the apocalypse. Almost just using his face alone, he is able to create an image of empathy in a body that is intuitively dangerous. The other actors in his wrestler-turned-actor group, John Cena and Dwayne Johnson, have not yet distinguished themselves in the same way Bautista has here, as neither of these actors have done the same type of low-budget indie film. Most, if not all, of their films are straight action movies, offering little artistically, aside from the stunts and choreography. Within the last several years, Bautista has consciously attempted to seek significant dramatic work with the great auteurs like Denis Villenueve and M. Night Shyamalan. He is really trying to become “a good fucking actor,” he said in an interview with GQ.
Aside from Bautista, Groff and Aldridge deliver efficient, grounded performances that drive the film in the last hour, particularly as the plot begins to speed up and grow more intense.
This kind of movie is my type of film. “Knock at the Cabin” is a strong example of a “one-room movie.” These films are especially effective in my opinion because they’re uncomfortably engaging. The internal pressure that often slowly builds over the course of a one-room setting is intense and painful. By creating pressure, one-room movies create an artificial sense of heightened danger that keeps the audience involved. In this film, Bautista was critical in establishing that claustrophobic pressure. His physical size made the cabin feel smaller, thereby intensifying the feeling of being trapped. “Knock at the Cabin” wouldn’t be nearly as good without him.
While “Knock at the Cabin” is not Shyamalan’s all-time best work — I think that title belongs to “Signs” — audiences can still expect that this movie will rank highly in his filmography. People that already are a fan of his work will find this film particularly enjoyable. I went into the theater expecting to like it, and it delivered the experience I was looking for. I thoroughly recommend seeing “Knock at the Cabin,” which is currently showing in theaters.