By Alex McPherson
Partly saved by excellent performances and technical skill, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Knock at the Cabin” has the bones of a solid thriller but lacks the soul necessary to take it to another level.
Based on the 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” by Paul G. Tremblay, “Knock at the Cabin” centers around a gay couple — the high-strung, defensive Andrew (Ben Aldrige) and the more contemplative, thoughtful Eric (Jonathan Groff) — and their young adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), who take a vacation at a secluded cabin in the woods.
They’re having a grand ole time until a quartet of randos show up, led by the hulking Leonard (Dave Bautista), wielding makeshift medieval-esque weapons and insisting that they’re here to prevent the apocalypse. After a violent scuffle leaves Eric concussed, Eric and Andrew are tied to chairs and the intruders reveal their true directive. Andrew, Eric, or Wen must willingly give themselves up as a sacrifice, and the family has to kill one of their own, or else witness the death of humanity and be left to wander the scorched earth alone.
Among the intruders are the aforementioned Leonard, a schoolteacher whose intimidating physique belies melancholy and earnestness; Redmond (Rupert Grint), a hard-edged ex-con; Adriane (Abby Quinn), a palpably nervous restaurant cook and Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a nurse. They’ve each completely devoted themselves to the cause, despite being fearful of carrying it out. Eric, and especially Andrew, are shocked, confused, and doubtful, but their captors aren’t playing around.
As time passes without a result, the unwelcome guests sacrifice themselves one-by-one, each death prompting large-scale catastrophes to unfold, from extreme weather events to a pandemic (ahem), which they watch on newscasts. The family must decide whether or not to believe their captors and to weigh saving humanity at large against the safety of their hard-fought unit.
Thanks to gripping performances from the entire ensemble and a pervasive sense of claustrophobic tension, “Knock at the Cabin” is highly enjoyable in the moment, yet falters upon further reflection. The film’s various puzzle pieces haphazardly fit together, leading to toothless reveals that undercut the premise and have little new to say about “the apocalypse as moral dilemma,” especially when viewed as an allegory for climate change.
Still, there’s no denying the strength of the cast assembled here. Bautista is the obvious standout — both frightening and sympathetic. We can see each of the intruders wrestle with their compulsion, but Bautista is by far the most nuanced, embodying an antagonist whose devotion we never doubt, though his “reality” might be skewed. Grint, far separated from his portrayal of Ron Weasley in the “Harry Potter” franchise, chews scenery to a pulp as Redmond, dangerous and vulnerable. Quinn and Amuka-Bird are similarly solid — deeply uncomfortable in their shoes, but unwavering from their mission, with children they want to return to and secure a safe future for.
Aldrige and Groff are believable and endearing as the central couple, although the screenplay (by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman) doesn’t do them any favors, leaning into exaggeration and heavy-handed explanation that could have used a subtler touch. Andrew is, understandably, fuming with rage, accusing the group of being warped by conspiracy theories and targeting him and Eric because of their sexuality. A hate crime committed against him in the past has left him psychologically scarred and fiercely protective of Eric and Wen, unwilling to give them up under any circumstances and sometimes acting rashly as a result. While this character trait does lend itself to the film’s sense of anticipation and violent release, it’s off-putting how a fundamental aspect of Andrew’s identity is formed through an act of hate — a clunky, obvious plot thread to further the film’s pulpy pretenses.
Eric, the more religious one, is apprehensive but thoughtful, unsure of what to think. Groff excels in these quieter moments, bringing pathos and emotional grounding to the increasingly ludicrous developments. Cui, as Wen, is wonderful, conveying youthful curiosity along with a wiseness beyond her years — a constant reminder for what’s (potentially) at stake if Eric and Andrew don’t acquiesce to the group’s demands.
It’s praiseworthy that a queer couple headlines a mainstream horror-thriller, and “Knock at the Cabin” certainly emphasizes the love they have for each other throughout. We get frequent flashbacks to pivotal moments in Eric and Andrew’s relationship — contending with homophobic parents, having to distort the truth to adopt Wen, and the attack — painting them not as having extraordinary or supernatural characteristics, but as regular people trying to exist together within a culture that questions their right to exist.
Stylistically, “Knock at the Cabin” is also strong. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke keeps the camera almost excessively close to the actors, heightening dread alongside Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s fitting score, and deploys dynamic flourishes (like tracking an ax as it delivers a killing blow), which hold the viewer’s attention from beginning to end. The film is energetically framed even when the plot takes eye-rolling swerves.
Indeed, “Knock at the Cabin” has all the elements of something special, but its frustrating reveals fall flat — ultimately saying nothing new or noteworthy about relevant (some might say too relevant, particularly regarding the various disasters that are triggered) topics that plague society to this day. What we’re left with is a narrative that takes concepts deserving of a serious approach — radicalization, the allure of echo chambers, what we are willing to give up to ensure a safer future, trauma, environmental calamity, alienation of the Other, faith as a blessing and a curse — and clumsily jerry-rigging them together, abandoning ambiguity to fuel a story that has no idea what to do with itself. The premise is taken to such extreme, albeit simplistic lengths that it’s difficult to take seriously, and the film’s views on “sacrifice” are altogether repellant when brought back down to earth. We’re all headed toward an apocalypse of our own making, and “Knock at the Cabin” renders a real-life concern of climate crises into a morality tale that winds up with a mawkish, superficial aftertaste.
All that aside, Shyamalan’s film is still fun to watch and let wash over you. The performances, formal craft, and atmosphere are top notch, but true meaning is left locked outside.
“Knock at the Cabin” is a 2023 horror, mystery thriller directed by M. Night Shyamalan and stars Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge and Kristen Cui. It is rated R for violence and language, and runs 1 hour, 40 minutes. It opened in theaters on Feb. 3. Alex’s Grade: B-.
Alex McPherson is an unabashed pop culture nerd and a member of the St. Louis Film Critics Association.