The M. Night Shyamalan brand has always been a little wobbly — a typical MNS movie launches out of the gate with an expertly torqued genre set-up, pit stops for pulpy texture and earnest performances, and then goes off-road toward ridiculous and grandiose twist endings that manage to satisfy exactly no one. Once you apply smelling salts to the deathless swooning over The Sixth Sense (1999), the man’s name-above-the-title rep seems built on little more than mysteriously inflated expectations. If you’ve made it through Signs (2002), Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008), The Visit (2015), and Old (2021), you may’ve worked up a fight-or-flight response to the man’s name. All the same, his profile seems to be on the ebb by now, which may be the best-case scenario for his new film, Knock at the Cabin, a tiny B-movie white-knuckler that deserves an unprejudiced day in court.
It should be remembered how eagle-eyed Shyamalan can be about tension and dread, and that, as a writer, he’s more convincing with the micro than the macro. Here, he has the advantage of adapting Paul Tremblay’s insidiously crafty novel The Cabin at the End of the World (a much tangier title), which is plotted like an eschatological extrapolation of the famous “trolley problem” thought experiment, where you’re responsible for the calculus of deciding which track you let a runaway trolley careen down, so it will either kill five people or only one. The movie’s set-up is everything, and you get it from the trailer: gay couple Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) and their adopted Chinese 7-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) are home-invaded in their secluded cabin by four strangers, each carrying a large handmade bladed weapon. The spokesman is Leonard (Dave Bautista), a gentle giant in tattoos and eyeglasses, who lays out the situation in a rueful mutter: Thanks to visions of the apocalypse afflicting these perfectly ordinary people, the interlopers have arrived to compel Andrew or Eric or Wen to voluntarily kill themselves, thereby saving the world.
It’s a closed-room scenario stretched on the rack of a single question, with only two possible answers: Are these people psychotic culty maniacs, or are their visions real and is doomsday nigh? As the action progresses — the invaders are compelled to ritualistically kill each other for every day that passes without a commitment to “sacrifice” by Eric or Andrew, who spend most of the film tied to chairs — we see the two options slowly shrink into one. While Andrew, short-tempered and hardened by a history of homophobic violence, spits in the invaders’ eyes, feeling the familiar sting of targeted persecution, Eric — weakened by head trauma in the initial struggle — begins to falter, particularly once Leonard turns the TV on and tsunamis fill the news.
The film throbs with high blood pressure, and the cast is committed. However well-known he might be as a pop conceptualizer, Shyamalan is deftest not only at staging stress but at massaging actors; Knock at the Cabin is surprisingly dominated by Bautista, who radiates tragic and sincere humanity even as he’s beheading corpses. Aldridge and Groff have limited opportunities in their red-eyed roles, but Nikki Amuka-Bird and Abby Quinn, as two of the vision-shocked invaders, seethe with exactly the vexed anxiety the iron-maiden premise demands. (The fourth, played by Rupert Grint, has somewhat less to offer.) If Shyamalan wasn’t adept at getting the goods from all of his casts, just like this, as so many genre filmmakers can’t manage, I don’t think we’d even be having this conversation.
Of course, Tremblay’s tale is explicitly Biblical, with an implied gnostic context that is distinctly Old Testament Exodus, not post-Christ Revelations, and therein lies this film’s third-act dilemma. Since the dramatic stakes are all about believing or not believing the unbelievable, it’s explicitly a film about faith, treading covertly into a Left Behind bind that links up uncomfortably with Shyamalan’s decades-old pattern of cheap predeterminism.
It didn’t have to be this way: The last act of Tremblay’s novel, which is a blossoming of dark-heartedness that does what it can to avoid selling this palm-size concept short, gets reworked by Shyamalan into something far mushier, in the man’s enduring bid to be some kind of Biblist prophet of cosmic destiny. He apparently cannot tolerate the idea that everyday chaos, and his stories’ supranormal phenomena, aren’t actually structured around some God-programmed scheme — often, a nexus of childish, revival-tent ideas about sacrifice and redemption. (His characters usually end up being non-autonomous puppets in some beneficent divine plan, and Abrahamic “sacrifice,” repeated scores of times in the new film’s god-of-plagues rhetoric, is taken dead seriously.) This whole gambit of Shyamalan’s, in film after film, might be just a twisty screenwriting reflex, but I think he means it, and the contraindicating toxic doses of sanctimony and pretension, from The Sixth Sense on, are what really make Shyamalan’s filmography something of a joke.
Neglecting Tremblay’s gripping ambiguity ultimately turns Knock at the Cabin against itself. You have to wonder: Maybe Shyamalan’s merely a pious sentimentalist working in the wrong genre, cranking out the badtime stories only to compulsively douse them with the treacle of all-for-the-best theistic homilies. Maybe for him, the gloriously discomfiting tension of genre films is only the bowl of soup he bribes you with, so you’ll sit for the sermon. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.