‘Knock at the Cabin’ review – Taps rather than pounds at the door

For a director who’s known for his twists, the biggest surprise about M. Night Shyamalan‘s latest movie is how plain it is. At least in comparison to his entire output. In Knock at the Cabin, an adaptation of Paul G. Trembaly’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World, the never consistent Shyamalan delivers what might be his most straightforward work yet.

Knock at the Cabin starts off like a standard home-invasion movie; a vacationing couple and their young daughter are visited by four strangers, all of whom are wielding weapons. Or as they call them: “tools.” The parents, Andrew and Eric (Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff), are eventually overpowered by the intruders and then tied to chairs as their child Wen (Kristen Cui) watches in terror. Of course, things are not what they seem. The brawny and imposing Leonard (Dave Bautista) and his three associates (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn and Rupert Grint) aren’t here to gay-bash the couple or forcibly draft them into a religious cult. No, they’re there to save the world.

Knock at the Cabin barrels into its story after Wen meets Leonard in the woods by her cabin. Shyamalan throws you into the fire without so much as a blanket to smother the embers once things die down for a moment. There’s not a whole lot of immediate exposition to go off on, and that racks up the tension. In place of explaining what’s happening right now, the movie uses flashbacks to flesh out its two main characters, though most of the attention is given to Aldridge’s half of this queer coupling. How Andrew and Eric came to adopt Wen, how Andrew endured the personal trauma that fuels his response to this encounter, and so on.

Initially, Shyamalan wrings out a fair amount of suspense from a stretched premise. Once all the cards are on the table, it’s not hard to figure out how this movie is going to play out. Even as someone who hasn’t read the novel, the beats are obvious. Predictability doesn’t always make an entire movie moot, but in this case, it does slightly deflate the experience and leave demanding viewers to want more.

In spite of its foreseeability, Knock at the Cabin boasts sharp camerawork as well as effective technical choices. The intense, lingering close-ups of faces create urgency.  The emotions stay with you longer that way. Also, the characters’ memories, both existing and forthcoming, are more compelling than the scenes set in the present timeline. They add a lot to an otherwise stock story about the end of times and ritual sacrifices. The performances aren’t all across the board stellar, yet out of everyone in this pageant of visceral pleas and pressing desperation, Aldridge and Bautista were the most interesting to watch.

Shyamalan has been an audacious filmmaker since the very beginning. Of course not every thing he does is agreeable, at least not at first, but usually he can’t be accused of not trying. Shyamalan is regarded for taking big swings and ignoring convention. If you know him by this reputation, then Knock at the Cabin may come across as safe. Sure, the stakes are high but they’re never that shocking either.

With Knock and Old, it’s highly possible that Shyamalan is too restrained when doing adaptations. He makes distinct changes to the source material, yes, but there’s something more engaging about seeing his own weird, original ideas unfold. Knock at the Cabin isn’t completely fruitless, however it’s also unremarkable.

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