Synopsis – While vacationing, a girl and her parents are taken hostage by armed strangers who demand that the family make a choice to avert the apocalypse.
My Take – It is a matter of fact that ever since he broke ground with The Sixth Sense back in 1999 and doubled down with Unbreakable (2000), writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has been gloriously inconsistent with his works. Works which continue to get the most extremes far sides of reactions for his bizarre yet ambitious style. Simply told, audiences either love or hate his films.
Still reeling off a career resurgence which saw hits like The Visit (2015), Split (2016), Glass (2019), and Old (2021), his latest adaption is yet another success story, another taut, divisive psych-out thriller for a filmography stacked with them. Most surprisingly, the film, based on author Paul G. Tremblay‘s 2018 novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, is a straightforward affair, minus the signature Shyamalan twist and surprisingly light on many of the set pieces that his films usually possess.
Instead working as a (largely) single-location, character-driven thriller that attracts attentive eyes by having its charismatic cast turn the screws on a highly suspenseful narrative, all the while as they unwind the tricky moral conundrum at its center. Reminding us that filmmaker Shyamalan deserves to be celebrated as much for his craftsmanship as he is for his shock tactics.
Sure, the 100 minute long film isn’t perfect nor does it compare well to his better works, but it’s certainly a fun ride. A solid genre film backed by great performances from the cast, interesting ideas and themes, and great direction.
The story follows Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), a happy couple who are holidaying with their young daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) at a charming cabin. However, their pleasant vacation is cut short when a stranger named Leonard (Dave Bautista) arrives with his three armed associates, Redmond (Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Adrianne (Abby Quinn) and takes them hostage. After the dust settles, the four intruders make it clear they won’t harm Wen and her parents.
The visions collectively plaguing them for years are coming true, and they present an ultimatum to the family of three. The end of the world is at hand, and the only way to save all of humanity is for Eric, Andrew and Wen to make a blood sacrifice. One of the three must kill another member of their small family. It can’t be suicide. It must be a sacrifice of one by another. If the sacrifice is not made, the world as we know it will cease to exist.
This is a fascinating position for a story to start from, director Shyamalan and his credited co-writers, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, craft the source material into a taut psychological thriller. Some films would use this setup as a springboard for a survival horror in which the family is forced to defend themselves against strange interlopers in thrilling action sequences. But the story goes in a different, more character-driven and unsettling direction. The bad guys are apologetic, presenting their apocalyptic challenge with unnerving politeness. The writing here is relative and gutsy.
While the subject matter is horrifying, it’s not a horror film. It’s disquieting, disturbing even, but its goal is not to frighten you. In our modern world of mass shootings and mental illness, the thought of a doomsday cult with murderous intent isn’t far-fetched, but the intruders have pledged not to harm them. In fact Eric and Andrew are being politely asked to choose who they themselves wish to sacrifice for the greater good. The film takes big existential questions about the plight of humanity and the nature of sacrifice in an increasingly selfish, skeptical world and wraps them up inside a well-made thriller.
We also get a bunch of flashbacks to the relationship between Eric and Andrew, which fleshes out their characters and helps you to identify with them. The white noise and confusion created by this seemingly random threat is deafening for the two men. They entertain the idea that they’re being targeted because they’re a same-sex couple. They’re wrong, but years of bigoted comments, judgmental looks and outright violence justify their suspicions.
Leonard and his companions claim that they’re normal people who do not want to hurt the family at the heart of the film, they truly believe that the apocalypse is imminent, and that the only way to avert it is for Andrew, Eric, and Wen to designate one member of their family as a sacrifice. The invaders are willing to trap the family in their cabin for as long as it takes them to make that sacrifice.
The camerawork too is as crisp as ever with fantastic wilderness settings and supreme angle work. Although there’s nothing inherently spectacular about the cabin in question, director Shyamalan careens through the space and crawls closer toward Eric and Andrew’s faces as their horrifying new reality dawns on them.
Yes, the conclusion is more deflating than revelatory or exhilarating, but a setup such as this one can never end in a way that fully satisfies logic, realism, and viewer expectations. A setup such as this one, where every possible outcome remains in the air until end credits roll, can never please everyone with its conclusion, either.
Performance wise, Dave Bautista brings an earnest, mostly-gentle-giant turn here will likely upgrade his acting status from underrated to fully rated. Bautista, recently expressed an interest in moving into more dramatic fare. Here, he has seemingly already fulfilled his wish. The role of Leonard is perfectly suited to the wrestler-turned-actor. Rupert Grint is also superb as a twitchy, simmering redneck, adding a dose of violent volatility to the mix.
Nikki Amuka-Bird and Abby Quinn have less substantial roles, but provide some heart and even a couple of chuckles amid the mounting horror. Both Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge are also relatable and quite solid. However, Kristen Cui steals the show and manages to be both believable and likable throughout. On the whole, ‘Knock at the Cabin’ is an effective micro-horror that is both taut and disquieting.
Directed – M. Night Shyamalan
Starring – Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Rupert Grint
Rated – R
Run Time – 100 minutes