M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most exciting directors working today and one of the few filmmakers that can draw audiences based on his name on the marquee alone. And that’s because we can always count on his films to be entertaining, original, and intense. His latest knock-out film, KNOCK AT THE CABIN, is no exception. Claustrophobic, brutal, and suspenseful, this horror-thriller is going to have you on the edge of your seat the entire time, not only questioning what is real, but also wondering when the big twist Shyamalan is known for will come. But regardless of the twist, from five minutes into the film and until the last frame, Shyamalan has you in the palm of his hand. I don’t think I took a full breath until the credits began to roll and even then it took me a minute.
Based off of Paul G. Tremblay’s novel THE CABIN AT THE END OF THE WORLD, this film opens on Wen (Kristen Cui), a young girl who is outside catching grasshoppers. She and her dads Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) are vacationing in a remote cabin where there is limited cell phone reception and no interaction with the outside world… or so they thought. All of a sudden, Wen encounters a man named Leonard (Dave Bautista), who gently helps her catch grasshoppers but then apologizes for what he and his associates must do in the near future. Startled, Wen runs inside to get her parents and explain the creepy encounter she had outside… just in time for a loud knock on the door.
Leonard is now joined by three other people with medieval-style weapons. The group of people ask to come in so they can explain why they are there. They are clear that they must talk face-to-face; the fate of the world is depending on it and they won’t take no for an answer… even if it means breaking down the door. But are these people actually apocalyptic messengers or are they brainwashed members of a cult?
You won’t be getting any spoilers out of me. If I were to confirm there is/isn’t a twist, that would ruin the experience. Just like Shyamalan’s other films, it’s best to go into them knowing as little as possible so you can be open for surprises. My biggest surprise was how grounded the film is, despite some supernatural elements sprinkled throughout. It focuses on the humanity of an apocalyptic crisis (real or fabricated), paying limited attention to the world outside of the small isolated cabin to instead focus on a family’s loving relationship facing the ultimate test. The film could easily be made into a stage production because it is so insularly focused and depends so much on the script and incredible performances from the ensemble cast.
I cannot say enough good things about Dave Bautista’s performance in this film, which is easily the best of his career. This role must have been written specifically with him in mind because I cannot think of anyone who could have played it more perfectly. Bautista plays counter to the kind of gruff character we typically see, leaning into his large physicality to instead exude a sense of calm, giving a measured, sensitive performance that makes the audience sympathize with him immediately. Leonard is the heart of the film and without such a strong performance from Bautista, I can’t imagine the film being as good as it is. You’ll find yourself obsessing over whether you think the likable Leonard is actually seeing visions of the world ending or if he is a brain-washed member of a cult. And as dark as it is, you’re hoping for the former so you can still root for the guy.
Nikki Amuka-Bird was another standout for me. Her authentic, relatable performance was the main reason I continued to believe that maybe the “cult” members were telling the truth. Her ability to walk the line between unhinged and nurturing was phenomenal. The first thing I did when the movie was over was look to see what I could see her in next. I could also talk about how adorable Kristen Cui is, but that would be doing a disservice to her stellar performance. It’s hard to believe this is her first film role because she was a total pro. The fact that she is going toe-to-toe with an all-adult cast made her natural performance even more critical to the film, particularly in reinforcing Leonard’s sensitive side, as well as the urgency in her dads to shield her from the imminent danger.
Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge have amazing chemistry and I liked that Shyamalan gave both men distinct personalities with well-developed character arcs that are fleshed out as the film progresses. Their love for their daughter and for each other is palpable, despite the fact they often contradict each other; Groff as the dreamer and Aldridge as the realist. Their relationship is representation at its best, on-screen with no questions asked.
I hate saying KNOCK AT THE CABIN is Shyamalan’s best movie since [insert other amazing movie here] because quite frankly I am a fan of most of his films. Don’t even get me started on THE HAPPENING, which legitimately still haunts me and gives me nightmares. But it is definitely up there in the pantheon of Shyamalan classics and I will be shocked if you don’t leave the theater surprised about what does (and doesn’t) happen in the end.
My Review: B