Knock at the Cabin review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The tone is the best part of M. Night Shyamalan’s many thrilling stories of horror and suspense. He has a great way of crafting scary situations that keep the audience guessing. The problem is that he usually gives up the game and provides a tactile explanation for what just transpired or the type of film you were secretly watching. This ranges from twists in characters (“I see dead people”) to twists of genres (Unbreakable and Split were secretly comic book movies all along!). Thankfully, Knock at the Cabin manages to hold onto that ambiguity of maintaining the uncertainty and doubt right up to the last scene. There’s no easy twist that explains everything this time.
The married couple, Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their daughter Wen are staying in a woodland cabin for vacation. While Wen catches grasshoppers outside, she’s approached by a stranger (Dave Bautista). The stranger is being friendly to her. Too friendly. He starts feeling wrong about what’s to follow when his three friends (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint) arrive with weapons. The strangers have come to the cabin with the intent to stop the end of the world. The only way to prevent the apocalypse is to convince the married couple that one of them has to die. The strangers don’t want to force this choice but stress the time limit by killing their own every few hours. With each sacrifice, another tragedy befalls humanity. Or is it?
Andrew doesn’t believe this fantastical demand and has good reason not to take these people seriously. Everything about them sounds like a conspiracy group. Another part of their personality makes it seem like this is all a scheme to strike back against gay families. Eric, however, starts believing them. It could be how accurately they predict worldwide disasters. It could be the desperation in the eyes of strangers. It could be that Eric has a head injury that has altered his perceptions. There’s no clear answer. So who do you trust as the clock keeps ticking toward the supposed apocalypse?
As a mild spoiler, I guess I should state there’s no clear answer. You may walk away with your interpretation, but Shyamalan never holds the audience’s hand in this regard. He’s taken off the easy-resolve bumpers of his storytelling to present a picture with more to say about the nature of judging humanity, questioning sacrifice, erosion of trust, and conflicted sensations of doubt among faith. The only problem is that much this story skips on by that it doesn’t leave much room to explore the characters, coming off more like a slightly elongated Twilight Zone episode.
I loved how the film has a keener embrace of the scariness of this situation rather than finding simple answers. The staging of the many kills and fights throughout the cabin are brilliantly framed. When Bautista brings down an ax as the camera follows, cutting right before the brutal decapitation, it hits hard about the unhinged nature of the situation. Speaking of Bautista, he’s so good in this film where he’s the strongest among the entire cast but also the most terrified, pleading to be taken seriously. The entire cast also brings out their best, with Ben Aldridge’s furious desire to escape and Jonathan Groff’s empathetic nature.
Knock at the Cabin isn’t a perfect film, but it’s undoubtedly one of Shyamalan’s top films, for whatever small hurdle that may be. It has excellent tension throughout, making the rushed storytelling and somewhat open ending less distracting. Maybe Shyamalan should keep adapting books because he did a solid job with this picture.