Few directors inspire as many bipolar reactions as M. Night Shyamalan. Once known as the “Master of Twists,” Shyamalan ran into a dry spell during the late 2000s. Some of his films during this time struggled with storytelling and failed to gain much of an audience. Most of all, the director’s reputation became too tied to narrative twists. As some these “twists” began to flounder, so too did the audience. Yet in 2015 and 2016, Shyamalan delivered back-to-back hits in The Visit and Split. He returned to high-concept filmmaking, delivering his unique style and Twilight Zone stories to the big screen. His latest, Knock at the Cabin, firmly falls into that window. A straightforward movie with an intriguing premise becomes an immaculately paced thriller with stunning performances throughout. No question about it, Shyamalan delivers his best work in years.
At the beginning of Knock at the Cabin, a young girl named Wen (Kristen Cui) catches grasshoppers. When a large man named Leonard (Dave Bautista) approaches, she gets nervous. Soon three others, Redmond (Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Ardiane (Abby Quinn), arrive with pitchforks and weapons. Wen rushes into her house to warn her dads, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). When the strangers break into the house and take the family hostage, they make their intentions clear. One member of Wen’s family must kill another in order to save the world.
The story pulls heavily from the moral quandaries facing its characters. What would you do if the world asked you to sacrifice yourself or your loved ones? Shyamalan ties in group illusions, message board conspiracies, and hate crimes into the story. Even the four-horseman idea is apparent from the get-go, pulled directly from the novel A Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. Much of the first half of Knock at the Cabin is pulled beat by beat out of the novel, allowing Shyamalan’s visual stylings to take over while the novel sets the stage.
Throughout this time, Shyamalan begins to seed his ideas through the framing of his actors. Shyamalan has always brought considerable power to his stories by using extreme close-ups. The difference between Knock at the Cabin and the rest of his filmography comes from the emotional performances. Every person, from Bautista down to Cui, delivers brilliant emotional arcs. This is the best ensemble he’s delivered since The Sixth Sense. Knock at the Cabin thrives because of its devotion to emotional, empathetic visual storytelling. Drawing from Demme and Jenkins, Shyamalan forces us to understand the pressure each character is under. As realizations and sacrifices are demanded, emotion washes over the characters. Shyamalan allows us to see this progression in real time and adds to the stakes with each act.
Where Shyamalan the storyteller takes over becomes apparent in the second half of the narrative. He drastically changes the ending of the novel, replacing a dark ending with another that proves more fruitful for the themes he’s pulling. Indeed, one imagines it would be impossible for the audience to remain on board for the film if it delivered a straight recreation of the novel’s ending.
Ultimately, Knock at the Cabin has a mind on larger questions of sacrifice and callings. The world will react in ways that we do not understand, and we often feel numb to the next tragedy. However, when confronted with the power to actively make a difference, do we choose to ignore the problems or step up? We often stare danger and tragedy in the face. What will it take for us to believe our actions can help or even save lives? We may believe we have control, but when faced with the stark reality that the natural world is bigger than us, we rarely acknowledge the possibility of tragedy until it’s too late.
To deliver his vision, Shyamalan gets world-class performances from the cast. It’s hard to argue who takes best-in-show honors. However, Bautista continues his incredible run, once again showing his range and talent in every scene. Knock at the Cabin will introduce many audiences to Amuka-Bird, who previously delivered a knockout performance as Patricia in Old. Here, she delivers some of the best monologues and moments of the film. She’s terrified of her actions but even more terrified of what’s to come. Her power as a performer grounds us with the strangers and makes it clear they are conflicted participants. Quinn brings much-needed charm and heartbreak to her role, and Grint gets one spectacular showcase of his emotional talent (even if the accent is oddly delivered).
Both Aldridge and Groff soar, inviting us into a beautiful relationship. Their chemistry is off the charts and invites us into their intimate moments to understand love, passion, and risk. Knock at the Cabin has the unfortunate task of following a brilliant episode of The Last of Us but finds itself crafting its own gorgeous romance about family and loss at the end of the world. To complete the trifecta, their verbal and non-verbal relationship with Cui drives home the power of their family.
To cap it off, Shyamalan’s craft team comes to play. His dual cinematographers Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer deliver gorgeous images throughout. They execute on Shyamalan’s blocking, and use frames within frames to get our focus onto the minutia. Shots looking through a window or door take on beautiful meaning and tension. Speaking of tension, editor Noemi Katharina Preiswerk tightens the screws on the audience. More than once, her willingness to let us sit in a longer take resulted in a visible jump from the audience. This is not to say Knock at the Cabin is a jump scare thriller, but it has the ability to get under your skin as only a thriller can. Finally, Herdís Stefánsdóttir score stuns without ever laying it on too thick. Keep an eye on her career, as the industry certainly will come calling after this showcase.
There may be many who resist the belief that Shyamalan has made a film worth watching. Yet Knock at the Cabin over-delivers. It’s a stunning work from a forgotten master and his most technically proficient movie since The Village. Shyamalan has consistently made it clear he values earnest storytelling above all else. Sometimes this makes his stories too schmaltzy to function. Knock at the Cabin is enhanced by that vulnerability. Shyamalan crafts a heartfelt thriller, challenging the audience to understand the power of love and sacrifice to protect those we love the most.