Knock at the Cabin
M. Night Shyamalan’s latest is taut if unmemorable
M. Night Shyamalan went from Hollywood Golden Boy with hits like The Sixth Sense (1999) and Signs (2002), to punch-line with Avatar: The Last Airbender (2014) and After Earth (2013). However, the Indian-American director has staged an impressive comeback, averaging a movie a year with a curious tactic: staging his films within one location.
Knock at the Cabin (2023) takes place nearly entirely within a cabin in the woods where a couple, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) have gone to spend time together with their 8-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). Four strangers, led Leonard (Dave Bautista), crash their vacation, however, and impose a choice: the family must choose and kill one of their own or the entire world will succumb to the apocalypse.
Shyamalan, as with his most recent projects, keeps his story tense by constraining himself to the cabin. This has worked to differing degrees of success with his most recent films, if proved effective in Split (2016) and Servant (2019-2023), but was restrictive in Glass (2019) and Old (2021). With Knock at the Cabin, Shyamalan hits a sweet spot of premise and atmospherics, so that viewers are kept on the edge of their seat, skeptical and guessing about who is telling the truth, while Shyamalan masterfully heighten stakes and tension using his directing acumen. By shrinking his recent films in scope and scale, Shyamalan can manage a greater control over atmospherics; each close-up and pan proves more crucial to elevating tension than a CGI monster ever could.
Knock at the Cabin is largely successful due to its narrow focus and limited cast. However, Shyamalan doesstruggle to flesh out his characters. There are brief flashbacks to Eric and Andrew’s past, but not enough for us to truly latch on to them and build emotional ties to their fates. This cheapens the central narrative choice, by having it remain a thought experiment for viewers instead of an emotionally wrenching “Sophie’s Choice.”
The four strangers that show up are largely stock and forgettable characters, save for Leonard, for whom Bautista enlivens with the best work of his career. Using silence and restraint to craft a suppressed and deeply troubled man, Bautista delves into wells of emotion that one would have never guessed was possible. On the other side of the narrative conflict, Ben Aldridge shines most, as the most skeptical member of his family. Aldridge’s measured delivery and doubt to increasingly unexplainable events helps maintain the air of mystery and indecisiveness of Knock at the Cabin’s central choice until the very end.
Many fans of Shyamalan will expect a classic twist to be tacked on at the end, but perhaps because Knock at the Cabin is adapted from a book, Shyamalan largely restrains himself. This allows the characters to conclude their arcs organically instead twisting their journeys around for shock value. In the end, Knock at the Cabin is a taut and enjoyable thriller, showcasing Shyamalan’s adept directing talent and providing viewers with a curious thought experiment. The film doesn’t have the punch or emotional depth as some of Shyamalan’s best, but it’s got enough tension and thrills to make it an enjoyable pastime.