If you could save the entire world from the apocalypse, but you had to sacrifice a member of your own family to do so, would you? That’s the question M. Night Shyamalan poses to Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their seven-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), vacationing in a remote cabin in Pennsylvania when their idyllic gathering is brutally interrupted by four intruders. But Shyamalan’s screenplay for Knock at the Cabin, which he adapted from Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World with co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, fails to develop a compelling story beyond that very question.
The eclectic group of strangers who pay the family of three a visit is comprised of the gruff Redmond (Rupert Grint), kind nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), bubbly chef Adriane (Abby Quinn), and elementary school teacher and coach Leonard (Dave Bautista, delivering a disarmingly vulnerable performs that plays around with his hulking frame in a particularly great bit of casting). Despite the fact that they break into the family’s cabin using a disturbing array of hand-made weapons and tie the adults to chairs, they proclaim that they are not there to hurt them. Rather, they were all drawn to this place on this day by visions they shared of the end of the world, and how to prevent it; the four had never even met each other before that day. If Eric, Andrew, and Wen sacrifice one of their own, they will stop the apocalypse; if they don’t, the four strangers will unleash a plague upon the earth for every “no” they receive, and ultimately, the family will be condemned to walk the scorched planet alone.
The ambiguity of the situation is what the bulk of the story’s intrigue hinges on. The intruders—apart from possibly Redmond—seem almost too nice and normal to be criminals, and strange, dystopian events (as seen on the news, the TV their only outlet to the outside world with the landlines cut and no cell service) start occurring that coincide with their arrival. Eric, who suffers a concussion during their initial scuffle, gradually starts thinking maybe they are telling the truth, but the more hot-tempered Andrew has a logical answer to every issue they pose, contending that they are members of some sort of religious cult run amok. But Knock at the Cabin, both in its text and in the majority of its cast’s performances, is too self-serious for this push-and-pull between faith and logic to be wholly stirring. Especially in the film’s final act, in which Shyamalan throws any hint of mystery out the window, opting for a surprisingly shallow, literal fire-and-brimstone conclusion that outright feeds every answer to the viewer, leaving nothing left to interpretation.
There’s also something off-putting about the film’s religious overtones that even in the couple of days since I watched Knock at the Cabin I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on yet. That the story centers around a gay couple is something that many have already made much of, and something that the film itself calls attention to, Leonard and the gang apologizing when Andrew insists they must have sought them out to commit a hate crime, saying that they aren’t homophobic and they didn’t know they were a single-sex couple before they arrived. And yet, for all that Knock at the Cabin does to portray all the love and heartbreak that Eric and Andrew have experienced as a couple (in a series of flashbacks interspersed throughout the film rather awkwardly, but that do allow us to get to know them better and understand the depth of the love they share that prompted them to be chosen) is there an implication there that pair are serving as martyrs for queer suffering? Is this entire film a veiled attempt at converting atheists to believers? If this is a crisis of faith, the characters make peace with their beliefs a little too quickly and easily to convince.
While the story and its shallow themes serve up more than their fair share of question marks, Shyamalan still has a firm grasp on his visual language, granting this largely one-location film a flair it would otherwise lack and keeping the camera moving in arresting ways (for instance, there’s a great shot filmed looking up from the ground at Eric reaching for a doorknob that heightens the anticipation of what’s coming that much more). He also proves, again, that he’s great at directing children. When we first meet Wen, she’s outside catching grasshoppers, scribbling charming notes about the insects she finds in her journal. Throughout the rest of the film, Cui strikes just the right balance of cute precociousness with genuine terror and confusion. I’ve always been a fan of Shyamalan’s work; even when his films aren’t particularly good, or take a wild swing in the final act that negates any compelling beats that came before, they’re always interesting (you can count me among the few who really liked his 2021 thriller Old and a lot more than this film at that). He’s one of those filmmakers who has permeated public awareness on the level of Hitchcock (I heard more than a couple people at my screening of this movie shout out Shyamalan’s amusing cameo appearance). But what’s doubly frustrating about Knock at the Cabin is that all the ingredients for a tidy, thought-provoking thriller are right there. By failing to flesh out the story beyond that question posed at the top, and by refusing to trust the audience do some of the thinking for themselves, Knock at the Cabin never emerges as more than a broad moral dilemma and an exercise in empathy undercut at every turn by its narrative faults.
Knock at the Cabin is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 100 minutes. Rated R.