M. Night Shyamalan’s new psychological horror film Knock at the Cabin builds its premise on a familiar ethical dilemma. Would you sacrifice the person you love in order to save the lives of many others? This utilitarian trolley problem is always a fascinating wrinkle for directors and screenwriters to introduce for their protagonists. But not since The Box has a single movie forgotten to add much of anything else to its food-for-thought experiment.
Based on the 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul G. Tremblay, Knock at the Cabin (a both better and worse title) follows a loving family of three on a weekend cabin getaway somewhere in Pennsylvania. The “modern family” consists of two fathers, Daddy Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Daddy Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their adopted 8-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui).
Their nice vacation gets rudely interrupted, however, by the intrusion of four strangers. First by an off-putting encounter out in the woods between Wen and the intimidating yet soft-spoken Leonard (Dave Bautista), then later when the mysterious group forcefully breaks into the cabin with various, unconventional weapons.
It’s not long before the quandary quartet (rounded out by Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint, and Abby Quinn) takes the family hostage and presents them with an absurd proposition. They have to kill one of their own in order to prevent the oncoming apocalypse. The strangers can’t choose who dies, and more importantly can’t do the deed themselves, nor can one of the family members take their own life. Because reasons.
“The four of us have a very important job to do.”
Why is all this happening? Well, much of the film dances around that pertinent question repetitively by claiming some type of devilish shared vision, among other contrivances. The rest of the film focuses on the strangers trying desperately to prove this objectively insane claim is real, even as the family increasingly denies it, and who can blame them? The clear intent is to string the audience along the same questioning of what’s real, which is odd because isn’t the whole point to have this family wrestle with the actual decision?
Knock at the Cabin eventually reaches a bit of a thud of a conclusion, one that subverts expectations (again) for a Shyamalan film, and instead lands on an emotional journey that replicates the moral grandstanding of Evangelical, faith-based films like the Left Behind series. No, seriously.
It’s a bizarre choice, one that belies a PG-13 first half that eventually, somewhat devolves into a weak R-rating (Shyamalan’s first since The Happening in 2009) in terms of visceral terror and obligatory “F” bombs. It’s almost as if the second half was directed by someone else, or vice versa, though the film is easily at its strongest and most tense in the early goings, when Shyamalan and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke utilize the movie’s unsettling atmosphere through the use of unexpectedly dynamic camera angles and the typical Shyamalan close-up, used more effectively here than usual.
The script, which Shyamalan wrote from an initial draft by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, also cuts out the typically distracting dialogue throughout the filmmaker’s long career, most recently in 2021’s Old. Wen, for instance, speaks like an actual, realistic child for most of the film, not because her lines are banal or expected, but because you get the sense that her parents raised her in a functioning household.
The bottom line.
The main problem with Knock at the Cabin is that it banks all of its emotional weight on audience investment into the three male leads. Seeing the tug and pull between Bautista, Groff, and Aldridge should be arresting, particularly when it comes to the edge between the married couple trying to work out an impossible situation. The film somewhat approaches something interesting with Andrew in particular, as we explore the root of his protective instincts as a gay parent from an old-fashioned family, as well as a history of a temper and traumatic attacks from bigots.
It makes perfect sense for a guy like Andrew to immediately assume the quandary quartet (that’s just what I’m calling them from now on) has targeted this family out of homophobic prejudice. That’s an interesting foundation to a better movie, one that understands and flexes that material into a story that responsibly tackles such risky subject matter.
Put more simply, if you’re going to bombard queer audiences with trauma-bait, you better do at least a decent job at it. Or at the very least craft something more compelling scene-to-scene beyond middle-of-the-road “someone’s in the house” thriller filler, where the only real attempt at subversion is positioning the home invaders as polite, kind, and even nurturing. Which, sure, it’s not like we get that kind of movie more than once a decade.
Knock at the Cabin opens in theaters on February 3. Watch the trailer here.
Featured image courtesy of Universal.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN - 4/10