★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Behold, the Shyamalanaissance! M. Night is in top form with his latest thriller, Knock at the Cabin, and boy does that feel good to realize that. After spending the better part of a decade in critical purgatory for delivering some truly atrocious films like The Last Airbender, Lady in the Water, After Earth, and the entertainingly bad The Happening, he has been slowly rebuilding the trust in audiences one movie at a time.
Perhaps Knock at the Cabin will assure everyone that he has learned his lessons and can be let back into our good graces. Granted, with every movie, you still wonder… is this great premise going to get wasted? So, even with a great trailer, and a great cast, there is that gremlin in the back of your alligator brain warning you of disappointment. Fear not, this movie was a masterful thriller, expertly presented. This time, the big plot twist is a promise, not a surprise. The question is, do you believe in it or not?
It wastes no time at all introducing us to all the players. Leonard (Dave Bautista), looking (and specifically filmed to look) as enormous and menacing as ever approaches Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui), a little girl in the woods catching grasshoppers. It is wondrous to see how mature and nuanced Bautista has become as an actor, and how well the rookie child actress interacted with the gigantic Bautista. In a bit of a surprise, Leonard seems to be very gentle and tender in the opening scene.
But, his true purpose is uncovered when his three companions Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Redmond (Rupert Grint), and Ardaine (Abby Quinn) arrive carrying savage-looking weapons. Wen flees back to her fathers Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) who are at the proverbial cabin in the woods where the three are vacationing at. The family locks themselves in the cabin, as Leonard asks that the four strangers be allowed in to talk. Rightfully fearing for their safety, the family attempts to shut out the new arrivals, but the cabin is far too vulnerable with too many weak spots for entry.
Eventually, the strangers overwhelm Eric and Andrew, and they are tied up and restrained. After a round of introductions that the intruders are ordinary folks on a mission, Leonard informs them that a horrible decision must be made. One of the three family members needs to die at the hand of their loved ones or else millions of people will perish, and if they fail to make the final sacrifice, all humanity, save the three of them will perish.
This MacGuffin happens very quickly in the story, and the whole premise hinges on this: Are these intruders part of a crazy suicide death cult… or are they telling the truth? This plays right into the hands of Shyamalan’s directorial style. Everyone with a passing knowledge of his work knows that he loves the BIG PLOT TWIST. In this case, the knot in the plot is plainly delivered. At what point, if ever, will Eric, Andrew, and Wen determine that a sacrifice needs to be made?
The plot builds nicely, as proof gets built, doubts linger, and escape plans are made. It is truly disarming that the invading quartet seems to be genuinely good people driven toward madness. Right down to the very last moment, the uneasiness and doubt remain. There are also plenty of clues as to who the intruders are, and my friend Crystal managed to peg their identity within the first act, I’m not sure that I would have, but it is fully revealed in the third act.
One big aspect of this film is that it is a high-level queer horror dialogue with the audience. The targeting of gays and the acceptance of gay families is given a full platform with this film. It colors the way Eric and Andrew process what is happening, and there is an undercurrent of the ugliness of a religious cult exercising a genocidal plot against the two men… at least from their perspective.
That perspective is conveyed in flashbacks to key moments in the lives of Andrew, Eric, and Wen. To be honest, not all of the scenes seem germane to the plot, but from a narrative perspective, these scenes provide the backbone for the reactions of the family.
If there are nits to be picked, I think that more effort from the intruders to let the consequences of the imminent doom soak in would have been useful. I get that the television cuts were useful, but they really could have hammered the point by channel switching and just a little more time to persuade. More proof, please! Only the end of the world is at stake!
Knock at the Cabin is based on the novel Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, which happens to be one of our novel critic, Liz William’s, favorite books having given it a strong ★★★★★ review. I have not had the privilege to read (or listen) to that book yet to compare and contrast it with the movie. So perhaps Liz will be able to weigh in later with her review, as I would love to know what she thinks. Another nitpick: They should have used the book title. It rolls off the tongue better.
In a recent interview with Martine Paris at Inverse, Tremblay said that making the deal with Shyamalan was a pinch-yourself moment, and he was invited on set and sent the script for review. Tremblay was very impressed with the screenplay, calling it extremely well-written; super intense.
“For people who read the book, there will be plenty of surprises,” he says. “The first two acts are probably very similar to the book. The third act is quite different.”Paul Tremblay
I think this movie will have the chance to advance the careers of everyone in the cast and crew of the film, particularly Tremblay who is being lifted out of relative obscurity. In addition to Bautista, I was thoroughly impressed with the performances of Jonathan Groff as the sympathetic (and concussed) Eric, and the counter-intuitively healing personality of Nikki Amuka-Bird’s Sabrina.
It should also go as no surprise that Shyamalan’s ability to direct children in the genre is unrivaled. From Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) and Abigail Breslin (Signs), to Olivia DeJonge, and Ed Oxenbould (The Visit) he has developed a reputation as a child actor whisperer. Kristen Cui could not have asked for a better mentor for her big-screen debut. Her wariness and watchfulness are on full display and wholly convincing, down to the little mouth twitches.
Shyamalan has returned to his Hitchcock-like ways and has found more restraint this time out. The gotcha moments seem much more earned and developed this time. It’s less of a surprising explosive moment and more of an earned climax in this film. Perhaps this is because he picked up on a great piece of established fiction (Though The Last Airbender proved that too could be botched) but kudos on delivering a compact and intense script, with stellar performances.
Knock at the Cabin is Rated R. The violence often is just out of frame, and it is light on gore, but it is a very violent movie. This film should be perfectly fine for teens capable of digesting intense high-build thrillers. It is opening wide this week and looks to be a blockbuster. I am quite aware that I’m not the only critic who has been impressed. This is a unique story and it is always great to see big studios take big chances. (Good job, Universal!) Let us hope the Shyamalanaissance lasts a good long time!
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