Thursday, February 2, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

Shyamalan’s latest is, well, Shyamalan’s latest.

Minor spoilers ahead.

Despite giving 2021’s Old a largely negative review, I took care to couch my analysis in the larger context of M. Night Shyamalan’s career. He has always been a distinctly idiosyncratic filmmaker, an individualistic dreamer ill-suited for the Future of Cinema superlatives thrust upon him in the late ‘90s. Those accolades opened doors, sure, but his failure to sustain that level of mainstream credibility is hardly his fault. He was never the next Spielberg or Cameron; he lacks their craftsmanship. Nor was he the next Lynch or Scorsese; he lacks their tonal control. He’s never been as cool as Tarantino, never been as lofty or profound as Nolan. Whether he’s commanding massive budgets and A-list stars or taking out a second mortgage on his home to fund passion projects, Shyamalan has always been a B-movie maestro, a carnival barker born to shock and amaze with fairy tales and ghost stories. His best work is his most primal, that which exploits the simplest of premises and explores the most fundamental of human fears.
On its surface, Knock at the Cabin seems to meet that criteria: Based on Paul G. Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World, it opens with a chance encounter between eight-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) and gentle giant Leonard (Dave Bautista). The two become fast friends, catching grasshoppers outside the cabin where Wen and her dads (Jonathan Groff as Eric and Ben Aldridge as Andrew) are spending their vacation. But as three more figures approach from the trees, Leonard is forced to reveal his solemn purpose: The apocalypse is coming, he says. He and his companions (Nikki Amuka-Bird as Sabrina, Abby Quinn as Adriane, and Rupert Grint as Redmond) have seen it in visions, and they’re here to prevent it from happening. Why this cabin? Why this family? Wen and her dads must make a choice, Leonard explains after taking them hostage: If they do not sacrifice one of their own in the next twenty-four hours, the heavens will fall, the seas will boil, and humanity will be wiped from the earth forever.

Eric and Andrew are predictably skeptical at first, both convinced that the foursome are right-wing terrorists targeting them as a same-sex couple. But when their refusal to “make a choice” (Leonard’s refrain throughout the film) leads to Redmond committing ritualistic suicide — and the rest promising to follow in kind if a sacrifice isn’t made — they begin to suspect that the group is under the influence of something darker. For their part, though, the invaders are polite and apologetic. They insist that they are not religious fanatics or sociopathic bigots. They’re not thieves or murderers. They have lives and families of their own. They do not want to be here. They’ve been sent by the visions, they say, and any attempts by Eric and Andrew to steer them from that purpose will prove unsuccessful, especially as the TV news reports more cataclysmic disaster with each passing hour. And so the question remains: Will they make a choice? Will one of them give up that which they love most to prevent the destruction of the human race?
Feels right at home for Shyamalan, right? Especially in the last decade or so, when the writer/director has given up the blockbuster ambition of The Last Airbender and After Earth and returned to smaller-scale genre exercises like Split and The Visit. And it’s true that much of Knock at the Cabin is pitched to his strengths: It’s peppered by quiet character nuance — especially from Leonard, whose tattoos and hulking size belie his grace and vulnerability — and driven by high-concept horror tropes that add apocalyptic stakes to an otherwise personal and intimate family story. That core human quality is there, too: What would we give up to provide a future for our children? How do we protect them from a world as unforgiving as ours, one that would treat Eric and Andrew to the pain and dehumanization we see in flashbacks detailing their journey to domestic tranquility? There’s no apparent rhyme or reason to this family’s selection, no magical energy emanating from this particular cabin, after all. It could happen to any of us.

There is a crucial difference, however, between a film “featuring” ideas and a film being “about” those ideas, and it’s not half an hour before Shyamalan’s worst storytelling instincts tangle the thematic throughlines set up so elegantly in his opening. Character and worldbuilding lore is introduced in half-baked asides and abandoned just as quickly, and one baffling excision from Tremblay’s source material — though more in line with Shyamalan’s family-friendly sensibilities — robs our intruders of critical emotional depth and is replaced with one of clumsiest, most dramatically inert second acts of the director’s filmography. Knock at the Cabin takes a huge risk with these changes, and it hopes that the climactic moments they inspire will resonate with those of us who would give anything for our children to have happy, fulfilling lives. But when those choices feel abrupt, when narrative beats feel stapled on rather than the result of genuine character progression, it’s impossible for them to have any tangible impact.
And so we’re left with yet another mixed bag from M. Night Shyamalan, another ambitious failure with just enough merit to be worthy of a watch — Dave Bautista’s delicate, thoughtful performance and Jarin Blaschke’s rich cinematography are the clear highlights — but not nearly enough to rank anywhere close to the director’s best work (which, for the record, is Signs). Like Split and Old before it, Knock at the Cabin is liable to turn a tidy profit for its investors and grant Shyamalan all the goodwill he needs to crank out mid-budget shlock for the foreseeable future, something that — even for his detractors — is cause for begrudging celebration. Filmmakers like Shyamalan should be allowed a tiny corner of our cinematic ecosystem. They should be left alone to make their janky bedtime stories and creature features without jumping through hoops dangled indifferently by Disney and Amazon. Sure, M. Night Shyamalan isn’t going to learn. He isn’t going to get any better. But hell, how many of us really are?

Knock at the Cabin hits theaters on Friday, February 3rd.

1 comment:

  1. I keep hoping each time his next film will be a return to form, and although I came around on Glass, he honestly hasn't even made a good movie (imo) since Signs, which should finally be the wake-up call. I think we need some time apart, and it's not me Shyamalan, it's you.