Review: 'Knock at the Cabin' is Shyamalan's Triumphant Comeback
by Manuel São Bento
February 1, 2023
Typically, when people talk about their favorite filmmakers, names of directors with never-ending success come to mind – with careers full of culturally impactful and memorable movies that have marked an entire generation. M. Night Shyamalan is a somewhat popular name in these types of conversations, but much of his filmography suffers tremendously from inconsistent quality. At the turn of the millennium, he crafted a series of unforgettable masterpieces (The Sixth Sense in 1999, Unbreakable in 2000, Signs in 2002), but then went on a long hiatus returning with new films that were either quite divisive or downright disastrous. He's back again in 2023 with Knock at the Cabin, an adaptation of the book written by Paul Tremblay.
In 2016, Shyamalan reemerged with Split, an unexpected sequel to Unbreakable that positively shocked an audience that had been waiting for the filmmaker's big comeback for years. Unfortunately, Shyamalan failed to ride that new hype wave, since both Glass and Old were, in their own ways, disappointing. Given all this back and forth throughout the last few years, why do so many moviegoers continue to look up to M. Night Shyamalan with such admiration and respect, myself included? And where does his latest, Knock at the Cabin, fit into the unpredictable qualitative spectrum of his projects?
The last question is the easiest to answer and the one I really want to dwell on. Knock at the Cabin could easily be considered the best movie Shyamalan has made since Signs – 21 years apart – but Split exists and has something to say in that regard. And no, this isn't one of those cases where it's "the best since *insert film title or date*" because there was no "competition". Shyamalan actually manages to regain his aura with this adaptation of Paul G. Tremblay's novel, titled in full The Cabin at the End of the World, which will surely receive a significantly positive reception from critics and audiences alike.
Knock at the Cabin focuses all its spotlight on a "simple" question: would you sacrifice someone you love to save the entire population of Earth? What if that question is posed by a group of strangers interrupting your peaceful family vacation? What would need to happen before you accepted that this insanity was, in fact, real? And what if it's not? What if it's all just a macabre movement by a religious cult? The questions are endless, as the moral dilemmas are impossible to answer momentarily.
Parents Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), are the family chosen to deal with this emotionally devastating debacle, regardless of the decision ultimately taken. This theme is pushed to its limits to create shocking, traumatic scenes that send the main characters into an uncontrollable emotional spiral. Through long takes and extreme close-ups, Shyamalan generates a bubble-like atmosphere, ready to burst at any moment from the accumulated tension and suspense.
DP Jarin Blaschke's cinematography stands out due to the lingering camera right on top of the actors, creating anxiety in viewers, who will nervously shake their legs, fidget uncomfortably, and bite their nails until the very last second. Composer Herdís Stefánsdóttir's score and especially the sound design – it is particularly immersive in a 7.1 theater – contribute in an impactful manner to an uneasy environment that benefits even more from the unique location, a characteristic quite common throughout Shyamalan's career.
The entire cast delivers astonishing performances, but if I had to identify the standout, it has to be Dave Bautista (also seen in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery recently). In interviews, the actor has expressed his intention to take on more dramatic roles and leave the inconsequentially comedic characters behind. In Knock at the Cabin, Bautista not only delivers the best performance of his career, but he also becomes my favorite wrestler-turned-actor. In a movie where appearances are deceiving, Bautista leads the "mission" of his group in a fascinating way, keeping viewers glued to the screen from the very first minute.
Not far behind him is Groff (also seen in The Matrix Resurrections recently). I've never particularly been a fan of the actor, but the greatest accumulation of emotions are found in his character. Gradually, Eric tries to interpret, judge, and decide what to do amid so much chaos. Following this character arc through Groff's facial expressions becomes simultaneously frightening and captivating. His counterpart, played by Aldridge, takes on a more protective, aggressive role, forming an interesting balance between two characters who react distinctively to a stressful situation.
Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint contribute with equally notable performances, although I wish the latter had more screentime. With the help of writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, Shyamalan co-authors a script that efficiently explores the characters in this situation, despite the transitions to certain flashbacks not always working. Either way, the character work is worthy of praise. Everyone has extremely relatable traits, which is one of the countless factors that enrich a taut atmosphere.
A few moments would benefit from more visual shock, but this is just an insignificant nitpick. Knock at the Cabin is more focused on playing with the horror aspects inherent in the premise, which doesn't have any associated issues. That said, there's a small attempt to explore the fact that the whole situation happens to a gay couple, as well as the clear religious context. Personally, I believe there was room for a more in-depth study of these topics, but it's more of an idea that would be interesting to follow than any real flaw.
Knock at the Cabin is a perfect movie to once again allow anyone to champion M. Night Shyamalan as an outstanding director. Someone who knows how to build the ideal conditions for the cast to shine. Someone who knows how to use the little space and time at his disposal – he has an impressive ability to create absolutely mesmerizing single-location flicks. Someone who generates an immersive environment effortlessly. As a screenwriter, Shyamalan is recognized for his creative, bold decisions without any fear of a divisive reception, carrying the (bad?) tendency to completely change the movie with a last-minute twist.
And it's on this subject that I want to end the review. Expectations are a major factor often ignored and undermined by viewers, as if having a predefined idea of what we anticipate watching doesn't affect the final opinion that much. In the case of Knock at the Cabin, it's relatively safe to assume that those who are familiar with Shyamalan's filmography will walk into the theater expecting a third act that, for better or worse, will elicit a general reaction of "what the hell just happened?" The interesting part of this topic lies precisely in the public's opinion about these same twists.
If Knock at the Cabin plays it safe, will it disappoint those who love these surprising moments and satisfy those who criticize the filmmaker's obsession with this mechanism? What if it's the opposite situation? The truth is more straightforward than one might imagine: it depends on the quality of the twist. Obviously, this is both vague and subjective, like everything else in film criticism. But as a fan of Shyamalan and all his qualities that are sometimes flaws and vice-versa, the conclusion of this movie manages to simultaneously leave me completely satisfied and… also asking for something more.
All of Shyamalan's films are undeniably impactful, and Knock at the Cabin is no exception to this tradition. I easily imagine this one becoming a cult classic or, avoiding this potential overstatement, being watched and rewatched over and over again by fans of psychological, claustrophobic horror films. In the end, I'm genuinely happy that a filmmaker who sacrifices so much of his own life to bring imaginative stories to the big screen is back on the lips of the film world for good reasons.
Knock at the Cabin marks the triumphant comeback of M. Night Shyamalan, who possibly delivers his best movie since Signs in 2002. With the help of a superb cast led by the phenomenal Dave Bautista – with a career-best performance – the filmmaker explores the emotional complexity found in the profound moral dilemmas placed upon human beings when faced with life-and-death decisions. With a focus on a single location with persistent cinematography and immersive sound design, generating an atmosphere charged with excruciating tension. Extraordinarily gripping from start to finish. The next cult classic is born.
Manuel's Rating: A-
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