And the M. Night Shyalaman comeback tour-lite continues. After several critical and box office duds, Shyalaman course-corrected with the creepy found-footage thriller, The Visit. While his subsequent output has been a bit mixed, Shyalaman has re-discovered footing with the excellent Split and ‘decent enough’ Glass and Old. For his latest thriller, Knock at the Cabin, Shyalaman has adapted Paul G. Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World. This marks the first big screen intepretation of Tremblay’s work, which is somewhat surprising. To date, critics are still mostly likely Shyalaman’s late career resurgence.
When seven-year-old Wen arrives at a remote cabin with her adoptive parents, she meets a giant man waiting in the woods for her. Though he’s initially kind, he warns Wen that her fathers must let him and his three associates into their cabin. Following a brutal home invasion, the four strangers confront the family with a chilling demand – they must kill one of their own to save humanity from the end of the world.
Knock at the Cabin Finds Unsettling Chills in its Premise
Things start of promisingly for Knock at the Cabin. Little time is wasted on set-up – instead Shyalaman uses quick flashbacks to flesh out his protagonists and their relationship. As a result, dangers sets in almost immediately for Wen and her adoptive fathers. In the first act, Shyalaman introduces a quiet sense of menace that puts you at ease. There’s no bombastic scares or jumps in these scenes. But the initial interactions between Wen and the giant Leonard are unsettling based on what you assume might happen as opposed to what the characters do. This restrained approach to the material continues to great effect as our four strangers gently introduce themselves and explain their predicament to their hostages. As for the initial home invasion, it’s quick and brutal and a rare moment where overt danger emerges.
In the first act, Shyalaman introduces a quiet sense of menace that puts you at ease.
Much of the suspense Knock at the Cabin generates comes courtesy of the story and its unique premise. Based on Tremblay’s novel, Shyalaman – and two co-writers – milk the core concept for all its worth. Those unfamiliar with Tremblay’s novel will arguably be most intrigued as they grapple with the ‘are they crazy’ or ‘is it really happening’ plot. Unfortunately, the premise only carries Knock at the Cabin for so long. Once things settle into the second act, the initial shock dissipates and the mystery elements stretch thin. From that point onward, Shyalaman occasionally feels like he’s stretching to pad out the runtime.
Knock at the Cabin Benefits from a Noteworthy Performance from Dave Bautista
Though Shyalaman expertly stages a handful of suspenseful moments, Knock at the Cabin loses some of its urgency. Previously, I’ve made the case for the effectiveness of PG-13 horror and relying on audiences to fill in moments with their imagination. Yet there’s an argument to be made that Knock at the Cabin sometimes feels a bit sanitized given the subject. There’s a lack of ‘apocalyptic’ in this apocalyptic thriller. Moreover, some of the story relies too heavily on plot contrivances and lapses in logic. Little bits of expository dialogue in the final act threaten to derail the thriller. And the closing moments in a roadside diner teeter on melodrama.
…some of the story relies too heavily on plot contrivances and lapses in logic.
Regardless of these faults, Knock at the Cabin consistently retains its grasp on the emotional core of the story. That is Shyalaman avoids plot twists in favour of allowing the characters and conflict built into the story to carry the movie to a satisfying conclusion. From top to bottom, Knock at the Cabin also benefits from excellent performances. Most notably, Dave Bautista impresses with a quietly disarming and sensitive portrayal at odds with his imposing frame. Nikki Amuka-Bird makes a compelling case for bigger roles in the future. Both Jonathan Groff (Mindhunters) and Ben Aldridge are convincing as lovers and parents determined to protect their family. And yes, Rupert Grint of Harry Potter fame is quite good playing against type.
Knock at the Cabin Continues to Find M. Night Shyalaman on Middle Ground
Similar to his last feature movie Old, Knock at the Cabin finds M. Night Shyalaman firmly in middle-of-the-ground territory. After a quickly tense first act that offers genuine intrigue, Knock at the Cabin loses some of its momentum. While it’s never dull, sluggish, or uninspired, Shyalaman loses some of the urgency he initially creates. Maybe it’s due to runtime that creeps up or perhaps it’s the result of a safe or sanitized approach to the material. For the most part, Shyalaman sticks the landing in a finale that focuses on emotion rather than an unnecessary twist. Strong performances from the cast, particularly Dave Bautista, make convenient plotting less glaring. Though it’s a flawed thriller, Knock at the Cabin is ultimately satisfying.