Knock at the Cabin

There's probably no director around today whose work is more hit-or-miss than M. Night Shyamalan's. He's made good movies, mediocre ones, and terrible ones. He gets a lot of flak for that inconsistency in certain quarters. It seems to me, though, that the reason for his uneven track record is that he takes risks with his storytelling. Sometimes those risks pay off, sometimes they don't. Isn't that far more interesting than a director who does the same thing again and again? Shyamalan takes on big themes with his latest, Knock at the Cabin, which is based on Paul Tremblay's novel “The Cabin at the End of the World.” As far as I'm concerned, this is his best film since The Sixth Sense.

Married couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) are on vacation at an isolated cabin in the woods with their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). The little girl is outside one day when a large man, Leonard (Dave Bautista), emerges from the woods and begins talking to her. Three associates – Redmond (Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Adriane (Abby Quinn) – are right behind him. The frightened Wen runs inside to alert her fathers of the strangers' presence. They want to come inside, and when Eric and Andrew refuse to let them, they force their way in.

A scuffle ensues that ends with the dads being tied up. Leonard explains that he and his cohorts have all had a shared vision, emanating from a source they cannot identify. The apocalypse is imminent, and the only way to prevent it is for this family to make a sacrifice. They must choose one of their own to die at the hands of the other two. If they do not comply, a series of catastrophes will occur that will wipe out everybody else on the planet.

Knock at the Cabin builds steadily-increasing suspense from that premise. Andrew believes they are being targeted with a sick joke because they're gay. Leonard turns on the news, showing that a calamity has indeed occurred, though. We don't know if these intruders are telling the truth or under a shared delusion, brought on, as suggested at one point, by online conspiracy theories. As it begins to seem increasingly likely to be true, the movie forces us to ask ourselves what we would do in this situation. I cannot imagine murdering a member of my family, even if the fate of the world depended on it. How do you commit an act so unfathomable? How do you end the life of a person you love with all your heart? The queasy implications of those questions come more and more to the forefront as the film progresses. It psychologically messes with your mind.

Shyamalan heightens the tension through the way he shoots things, often utilizing tight close-ups of his actors with stuff in the background out of focus. That approach gives the movie a powerful claustrophobic feel, while also creating the subtle impression that the characters are talking to us. A couple sequences in which the family makes escape attempts pull the camera back to catch the action, which is intense. The sole area where the director doesn't go far enough – and I'll be vague in describing it – is in showing a few violent acts that are significant to the central dilemma. Had they been presented more graphically, the traumatic impact of them on the family would have had great force for the viewer.

Performances are excellent, front to back. The standout is Dave Bautista, who continues to prove himself to be a tremendous actor. He makes Leonard physically imposing, yet also sensitive and pensive. We sense how worn down this man is from the burden of having to put the family into an unpleasant predicament. He hates doing it, but recognizes the consequences if he doesn't. The movie benefits substantially from Bautista's nuanced work.

Shyamalan fully focuses on storytelling this time around, tossing away anything that doesn't keep the pace driving forward. Knock at the Cabin is a taut thriller with a moral point of view. The director is working at the peak of his abilities here, and he's turned in a real stunner.

out of four

Knock at the Cabin is rated R for violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.