Movie Review: Knock at the Cabin

Plot: Seven-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) is vacationing with her Dads Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) at a remote cabin in rural Pennsylvania. Their tranquil getaway is interrupted by a group of four people led by gentle giant Leonard (Dave Bautista). The four have come to deliver a horrific message: Wen, Eric, and Andrew must choose to kill one of their own to prevent the apocalypse. A tense and violent psychological game ensues that plays out on the world stage, leaving all players wondering if what the four are saying is true or just a massive delusion.

Review: The career of M. Night Shyamalan has been…unique. His third film, The Sixth Sense, catapulted him into superstardom, with pundits labeling him the next Spielberg. While his follow-up films Unbreakable and Signs were commercial and critical hits, things began to go sideways with the release of The Village. (FYI I think The Village slaps.) What followed were a series of box office and critical bombs (After Earth, The Happening, The Last Airbender) that had Shyamalan go from superstar to falling star. Yet The Visit and Split proved what Shyamalan is capable of. For better or for worse, Shyamalan chooses to be like Merrill Hess in Signs, always swinging for the fences. Or to put it another way, when Shyamalan misses he MISSES, and when he hits he HITS.

Knock at the Cabin is a HIT.

Compelling, tense, and impeccably acted, Knock at the Cabin is, in my opinion, his best film since The Sixth Sense. A nail-biting movie that feels more akin to 90s thrillers like Copycat and The First Power, this is the kind of small-scale psychological thriller that we rarely see anymore. It’s a welcome balm to those a little too burned out by the mass influx of superhero films. Based on the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, Shyamalan’s distinct style elevates what I considered a somewhat dull book.

While Shyamalan possesses his share of detractors (I can be one on occasion), he’s one of the few directors out there today who really allows the camera to do the work and tell the story. Quick edits and “clever” shots seem to rule the day. There’s something to be said for a director who just lets a scene breathe and lets the tension build. From the opening chilling scene between Wren and Leonard you know we are getting a tense and disturbing film. The repeated closeup shots make the horrifying scenarios uncomfortable and impossible to look away, which is exactly the point. It helps when you have a first-rate person behind the camera as well with Jarin Blaschke delivering some of his best work to date.

I also appreciated the fact that the movie is almost devoid of special effects except for a few minor things like a giant tsunami on a television news report. Most effects are practical. Knock at the Cabin doesn’t have to be big and bombastic. By keeping the focus mostly on the cabin and the events transpiring there, it makes the story more intimate and personal. With nothing flashy to focus on our attention is turned to the plight of Andrew, Eric, and Wren. We care deeply about what they are going through. We the audience begin to question if their actions could in fact have an impact on the world. It also leaves us wondering whether we could make this decision if put in this scenario, which again is kind of the point. Shyamalan puts us in the trenches with this family.

Yet at the same time Leonard, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint) aren’t really the bad guys. Are they a threat? Yes, but they are also a group of people compelled by visions (real or imagined) to act. They aren’t evil which Shyamalan goes to great lengths to emphasize. They are normal people—a  nurse, a teacher, a chef—put in extraordinary circumstances. In many ways, we empathize with them almost as much as Eric, Andrew, and Wren. This isn’t just Eric, Andrew, and Wren’s plight, it’s theirs too. What an interesting and dynamic way to draw us in. The pervasive sense of stress and dread that permeates Knock at the Cabin stems from the fact we aren’t ever quite sure about the validity of the intruders’ claims until the closing moments of the film. Credit where it’s due as Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman deliver an excellent screenplay, meant to keep you guessing.

What sets Knock at the Cabin apart from previous films is its superb acting. Rupert Grint’s performance as the fiery, bitter Redmond is so far removed from Ron Weasley, you’ll think it was a completely different actor. Kristen Cui brings a level of compassion and curiosity to the character of Wren that’s stunning for someone only nine years old. Meanwhile, Jonathan Groff delivers his best role to date with Eric being equal parts open, empathetic, and heartbreaking. The real question on everyone’s mind is of course, “How is Bautista?” In a word: stunning. While I’ve respected his acting ability, I never thought he could deliver a role like this. For a guy who’s immensely huge, he managed to make the character of Leonard feel small and vulnerable in the best way possible. He’s resolute, warm, and terrified and gives a monologue towards the end that had me tearing up. Anyone who still thinks of him as “that ex-wrestler who acts” needs to put those thoughts in the trashcan. Bautista is the real deal and he’s not going anywhere.

I always temper my expectations when I go into a Shyamalan film but Knock at the Cabin exceeded them and then some. A fantastic movie from a director that, when he focuses, can still manage to astound.

My rating system:

God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad

2 Straight Garbage

3 Bad

4 Sub Par

5 Average

6 Ok

7 Good

8 Very Good

9 Great

10 A Must See

Knock at the Cabin: 9/10