M. Night Shyamalan has never stopped being an interesting filmmaker. That is not to say that every one of his films have been great – or even good, for that matter – but with each new project he takes on, rest assured that audiences will be talking about it in the moment and also pondering it for years to come. Shyamalan’s latest directorial effort, Knock at the Cabin, is adapted from Paul Tremblay’s horror novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” with a screenplay co-written by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman. To give an idea of where I fall with recent Shyamalan flicks, Split (2016) was one of my favorite movies of the decade, Glass (2019) was a fascinating but ultimately disappointing capper to the Unbreakable trilogy, and Old (2021) was a solid summer horror joint that possessed certain scenes that should be held in the same regard as the highest of heights in his filmmaking career. (To be clear, I’m not saying the movie as a whole reaches the level of The Sixth Sense, just individual moments). However, I fully recognize that a lot of other cinephiles and critics are not on the same wavelength in this matter, so take that as you will.
With a tight 100-minute runtime, Knock at the Cabin comes to theaters at a time when many film fans finally have the chance to catch a breath after the overwhelming slew of awards season fare that bombards the release window of October to December, and into early January. Heading into February, some viewers gravitate toward romantic comedies and similar genres around the Valentine’s Day period. I tend to enjoy a nice rom-com myself, but I also appreciate a charming little apocalyptic tale during the Month of Love. Knock at the Cabin scratches that itch for members of the Lonely Heart Club Band who want a different kind of story about love. Because ultimately, love is at the root of this February horror picture. Shyamalan’s film explores the bonds of family, the resiliency of humanity, and the search for hope in the face of nihilism. Is love for one’s family worth the price of the whole world? Has the human race thrown away everything that makes it worth saving?
I will avoid spoiling anything directly here, but the answers to these questions are not left to ambiguity by the time the film reaches its conclusion. There was a moment in which I thought the picture was going to fade to black and the credits were going to roll, but the film ensued for another few scenes that left no doubt of Shyamalan’s ultimate thematic statement. However, Paul Tremblay’s novel has a more ambiguous ending by comparison. While I certainly think Shyamalan trusts his audience and is not afraid of ambiguity, I believe he wanted to plant his flag on solid ground for a reason. At the end of the day, Knock at the Cabin is not a cynical film. Of course, it is not a laugh riot from start to finish, but neither is it a completely dispiriting narrative that shoots down any semblance of optimism. Perhaps it is possible to find peace and contentment in a turbulent vortex of chaos.
The production budget for Knock at the Cabin sits at approximately $20 million, following the template of Shyamalan’s last couple films. The eponymous cabin is the single location in which the vast majority of the runtime takes place, and there are only seven main cast members. We have Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, Dave Bautista, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint, and Abby Quinn. Each of their characters are developed to varying levels of depth, but no character is overlooked. As these performances interact and coalesce, they all serve to form the framework of the film’s motifs. Granted, this should be standard stuff in practically any form of storytelling, but you do not always find character work this intentional in other horror movies. Lensed by cinematographers Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer, the closeups on the actors’ faces – Bautista in particular – are extremely captivating visual devices. The camera stares directly into the souls of these characters, and they stare right back. But, not unflinchingly. They are not superhuman figures. We see all of their fear, uncertainty, and apprehension – as well as their resolve and earnestness.
Maybe it is that same earnestness reflected in Shyamalan as a filmmaker that keeps me circling back around to his body of work, even when it is rough around the edges, and may very well break your heart from time to time (ie. The Happening and The Last Airbender). But somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this. M. Night Shyamalan feels like the best part of us, and his stories feel perfect and powerful. Because here, they are. (I make no apologies. That punchline was right in front of of me and I had no choice).
Dave Bautista in Knock at the Cabin. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.