Perhaps no career of any filmmaker has been so fascinating to track than that of M. Night Shyamalan. While not his official debut, the breakout success of The Sixth Sense landed him squarely within the popular culture like a lightning bolt, and his name entered the public lexicon as shorthand for twisty tales of intrigue. It’s difficult to maintain such momentum however, and what was once celebrated soon became riddled with inferior work. Yet, all the best stories have an underdog, and this most recent resurgence of popularity has been an interesting case study. Knock at the Cabin sees this auteur tackle subject matter that is a more insular chamber piece that revels in its themes and characters. That goal is not entirely achieved but it is a spirited endeavor to endure.
It all seems like an idyllic setup at first for a family that’s vacationing at a remote cabin out in the woods. Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) have ventured out into the secluded wilderness with their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) for a familial getaway. Their peace is suddenly and forcefully interrupted by a pack of strangers that happen upon them. A group of four, led by Leonard (Dave Bautista), subdues the parents and delivers a dire warning. It is the belief amongst this faction that the world will come to a violent end unless a sacrifice is made, that of one member of this family. What follows is a series of events that will question the foundation of certain truths and reveal a greater sense of purpose within their existence.
Well, deeper revelations are certainly the impression the film wants to impose on its audience. However, the results often struggle to convey such grand epiphanies. So much of the thematic exploration on the nature of faith and relationships are pitched only on the surface. One waits with bated breath for a grand summation that is elusive. The danger is palpable in every moment these intruders tower over this helpless family, but the outcome that ties them together is fruitless. The film does not need a Signs level deluge of coincidental tethering in the third act, but the weight of what the message concerning this situation is weightless. Say what you will about Shyamalan, but even some of his most reviled efforts contain a sincerity at its core. It’s an aspect that can be endearing, maybe one of the few positive qualities regarding the worst of his output, and yet it never quite coalesces here. The hollowness is pervasive, underlined by what seems like a rushed timeline that doesn’t allow the full rumination of these characters either. The premise is alluring, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
That isn’t to say there are no redeeming qualities present. For all that is lacking in the narrative, much is compensated by the keen sense of filmmaking that is infused throughout. A more grounded presentation forces Shyamalan’s eye to hone the tension in this small space, allowing the dynamics between these individuals to inform the increasing anxiety. The cinematography is simple yet crafts an intimacy that draws one into this plight with an effective suspense. The score from Herdís Stefánsdóttir is bombastic but in an appropriate manner that heightens the drama. The film does an admirable job at conveying these sequences of terror that seldom veer into a more fantastical expression. The initial home invasion maintains a messiness that comes across as a more realistic depiction of normal citizens defending themselves. As Andrew and Eric clumsily battle their assailants, the blows are delivered in a chaotic fashion which emphasizes the gritty and disorganized state of mind. We see the flashes in the eyes of terrified parents attempting to fend off the encroaching horror, and the cold determination of those who seek to introduce an element of menace. It’s a compelling presentation and a testament to Shyamalan’s capabilities as a director, guiding the audience with a tangled web of while one anticipates the ultimate conclusion.
Bautista provides such a commanding presence here, able to capture a menace that is intimidating and an earnestness that is inviting. While a more layered portrait of this character would have been greatly appreciated, the poise he brings to the role is undoubtedly captivating. It’s certainly much more than the crew surrounding him are, even though the likes of Nikki Amuka-Bird and Abby Quinn do their best to make an impact. That’s more than can be said for a forgettable Rupert Grint. Groff and Aldridge share a decent rapport but mostly seem to shine individually. Aldridge comes across as the more interesting role, inhabiting a slightly more nuanced personality, and his portrayal is quite engrossing. Groff’s tone is less assertive, though he does carry the emotional moments well. Cui is fortunately not saddled with terrible dialogue that is often the curse of children in Shyamalan films, and therefore her turn is not grating and serves the film effectively. The whole ensemble is quite good, despite having to rise above the thin material.
It’s a shame the film can never find itself bringing together the disparate ideas into a satisfying resolution. The plot revolves around certain mechanics to keep one interested but does not arrive at an outcome that properly examines the larger framework. It’s a great disappointment, but much is offset by the eerie atmosphere that is created and the engaging performances at the center. It’s a classic case of being underwhelmed by the lack of a more provocative analysis but being entertained enough in the moment to be passably sufficient. Passably sufficient is what many could only hope for with a new outing from Shyamalan, but this does showcase his expertise in setting an alluring mood. In the end, it is a fun yet fleeting ride to experience.
Universal Pictures will release Knock at the Cabin only in theaters on February 3, 2023.