Knock at the Cabin: by-the-numbers Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan’s latest proves he’s still handy with the nuts and bolts of intimate thrillers – but will he ever be bold enough to really lean into the darkness?

1 February 2023

By Leigh Singer

Dave Bautista and Kristen Cui as Leonard and Wen in Knock at the Cabin (2023)
Sight and Sound

When it comes to captive, tight-knit families facing end times, M. Night Shyamalan has form. 2002’s Signs, his third feature, was, like most of the Philadelphia-based filmmaker’s work, based on an original screenplay with now-trademark strengths ­(handsome production design; slow-burn suspense; keen focus on character) and weaknesses (fanciful logical leaps; sappy twist endings) in place. Here, Shyamalan adapts Paul Tremblay’s anguished 2018 home-invasion-meets-apocalyptic-nightmare thriller The Cabin at the End of the World. And while he honours the novel’s set-up, the climactic handbrake turn into an explicit parable of faith, another very familiar Shyamalan trope, is a radical act of rewriting that, almost ironically, shows a real lack of belief in the source.

One can see the premise’s high-concept appeal for Shyamalan. Into a rural idyll vacation taken by gay couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their beloved seven-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) come four strangers led by softly spoken man-mountain Leonard (Dave Bautista). Though striving to be polite and reasonable, Leonard’s crew, haunted by prophetic visions and armed with crude, homemade weapons, effectively take the family hostage. Their rationale is simple: Armageddon is imminent and can only be averted if the trio willingly decide to sacrifice one of their number.

Understandably, Eric and Andrew remain unwilling to comply and firmly unconvinced by this deal – initially Andrew is certain they’re homophobic ‘conversion therapy’ extremists – even when TV news footage appears to show earthquakes, tsunamis and even burgeoning pandemics seemingly result from their refusal. And while Leonard swears they won’t make or enact the family’s decision for them, other equally violent reprisals are in the offing.

Shyamalan dials down the novel’s explicit blood and gore, shooting more gruesome scenes with discretion, focused instead on the psychological and philosophical battles between both parties. Looming close-ups of the impressive cast often fill the frame as each side pleads their case, with Bautista once again proving to be the current wrestler-turned-actor most committed to testing his thespian limits.

Those familiar with Tremblay’s bleaker, more troubling ambiguity may balk at Shyamalan’s neatly uplifting if still tragic finale, redolent of the subgenre of fervently Christian-themed TV movies, albeit far better made (aside from a few ropey visual effects). Still, it’s surely less contentious than, say, the film adaptation of Thomas Harris’s 1999 cultural touchstone Hannibal, whereby Ridley Scott filleted much of the book’s disturbing denouement for a more palatable conclusion. Shyamalan’s facility for constructing intimate thrillers is clear, but will he ever be bold enough to embrace journeys into darkness without signposting the path to salvation? Now that would be a tantalising twist ending.

Knock at the Cabin is in UK cinemas now.

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