Never go on a vacation in an M. Night Shyamalan movie. You could wind up the sole survivor of a catastrophic train crash. Or maybe you’ll visit your grandparents’ house only to discover they are not who they seem. And don’t even think about going to the beach; everyone there turns prematurely old. Now Shyamalan’s made Knock at the Cabin, where a family’s vacation gets interrupted by four religious zealots who demand they sacrifice a loved one to prevent a global apocalypse. What’s Shyamalan got against vacations? Did he have a bad experience with a travel agent or something?
Actually, Knock at the Cabin bears a lot of similarities with Old beyond its vacation setting. Both movies are about ordinary families thrust into surreal circumstances where they’re forced to make impossible life-or-death choices. Both films feature actress Nikki Amuka-Bird in an important supporting role. And both films are based on existing source material; in Knock at the Cabin’s case, a best-selling novel by Paul Tremblay called The Cabin at the End of the World.
Both book and film follow married couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their seven-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) as their happy getaway at a remote cabin in Pennsylvania gets interrupted by a quartet of religious zealots. Led by the hulking Leonard (Dave Bautista), the four interlopers (including Amuka-Bird’s Sabrina, Abby Quinn’s Adriane, and Rupert Grint’s Redmond) claim they all have been stricken with identical visions of impending Armageddon: floods, plagues, darkness, the works. They also claim that they have been guided by these visions to Eric and Andrew’s cabin, where they have been instructed to order whoever is inside to make a choice: Willingly kill one of their loved ones or doom the rest of the world.
Eric and Andrew are understandably skeptical, and suspect they have been target by religious fundamentalists because they’re gay — one of the four intruders may even be someone who attacked them in the past — but Leonard and his followers continue to press the issue. And then they turn on the cabin’s television, where the news reports that strange events are starting to happen all over the world. Massive tsunamis strike the Oregon coast. A killer virus suddenly begins spreading wildly. Could Leonard be right? Is the world really ending? And if one of these two men do the unthinkable, could they spare the rest of humanity — and ensure their daughter has a long and happy life?
Those questions, along with some terrific performances, turn Knock at the Cabin’s first two-thirds into an incredible pressure cooker of a movie. It is an unconventional horror movie to be sure. Rather than shove the audience’s face in gore, Shyamalan repeatedly cuts away from moments of violence. And Leonard is anything but a clichéd home invader. He sweeps up the broken glass and debris left by his break-in. He apologizes for his actions. Later, after he commits a particularly heinous act, he pukes in the kitchen sink.
Thanks to Bautista’s background in bodybuilding and professional wrestling, Leonard has a horror villain’s physique. His heavily tattooed hands recall Robert Mitchum’s serial killer from Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, another man who claims to murder in the name of the divine.
But he’s also calm, and occasionally kind. Bautista imbues Leonard with unexpected humanity; he’s genuinely friendly to Wen in Knock at the Cabin’s opening sequence. That just makes him scarier, because he seems like a real person who truly believes he’s been called to perform a terrible deed, not some mindless monster who crawled out of a hack screenwriter’s imagination. Bautista gives a totally different sort of performance than his recent work in Glass Onion, just as both are completely removed from Drax from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Pro wrestling has produced bigger movie stars than Dave Bautista, but at this point I’m not sure it’s produced a better actor with a wider range.
Unfortunately, Bautista’s performance — and Shyamalan’s nimble camera, which tilts and cranes around the claustrophobic confines of the cabin — can’t entirely salvage Knock at the Cabin’s final act. The film is structured around this impossible choice, and it may have been equally impossible to find a satisfying conclusion that resolves the conflict between Leonard and the family without definitively coming down on one side or the other about whether this man is insane or a prophet. When the uncertainty and ambiguity begin to slip away, so does the tension. (I don’t want to say too much more yet, out of fear of spoiling things.)
Before that, though, Knock at the Cabin is about as well-acted and intense as a movie of this kind gets. For a long time, Shyalaman had a reputation as a guy obsessed with twists. While he does still occasionally veer into that sort of territory, his movies these days are less about structural gimmicks than insistent messages. In Knock at the Cabin’s case, it is a poignant tale about faith and sacrifice — and, above all, avoiding family vacations at all costs.
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