Sunlight blankets the dense forest surrounding a log cabin. A girl, perhaps 10 years old, sits quietly on the grass, collecting grasshoppers and depositing them into a large Mason jar.
Suddenly, a gargantuan man, arms covered in tattoos, emerges from the trees and approaches the girl. He speaks to her with a soft, friendly cadence that belies his hulking frame — at times, his voice wavers, almost to the point of breaking. He continually glances over his massive shoulder, as if expecting some unseen evil to crawl from the bushes.
So begins “Knock at the Cabin,” a film that, despite some well-directed moments, never again fully achieves the eerie beauty of that mesmerizing opening scene.
“Knock at the Cabin” marks writer and director M. Night Shyamalan’s first film since his polarizing 2021 thriller, “Old.” Based on the 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul G. Tremblay, the film centers around parents Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge, respectively), who find themselves beset by four armed strangers while vacationing at a remote lakeside cabin with their young daughter (Kristen Cui).
The weapon-wielding group — led by the towering yet soft-spoken Leonard (Dave Bautista) — takes the trio hostage and claims that the family must voluntarily sacrifice one of the three of them to prevent a global apocalypse.
Shyamalan’s influence simultaneously serves as the film’s greatest strength and its Achilles’ heel.
On one hand, Shyamalan’s direction elevates every scene — unique camera angles and long tracking shots ratchet up the tension, giving every moment a grandiose, ominous feeling despite the story’s restricted physical setting. On the other hand, anyone who has watched “The Sixth Sense,” “Signs” or even “Old” will expect a markedly different — and perhaps more entertaining — experience from a Shyamalan film than what “Knock at the Cabin” has to offer.
Shyamalan’s movies are known for one recurring narrative characteristic: a mind-bending twist. And yet, “Knock at the Cabin” may feature his most unexpected twist ever — no twist at all.
In spite of the multitude of places in the story in which Shyamalan could have inserted a thrilling surprise, no shocking revelation ever comes to light. The enigmatic director instead moves through the film’s story in an inexplicably straightforward manner, resulting in a disappointingly predictable narrative arc.
Because of this formulaic story, the burden falls upon the characters — and the actors who bring them to life — to retain the audience’s attention for the film’s 100-minute running time. Unfortunately, not all were up to the task.
Most of the assembled actors deliver over-the-top performances replete with gasping and needlessly frantic line deliveries. The actors sometimes spoke their lines with such overly emphatic goofiness that I felt the urge to laugh, despite the dark story. Cheesy, on-the-nose dialogue also inched the film closer to laughability with every passing second.
Luckily, Shyamalan’s film has a secret weapon: Dave Bautista. With his career-defining stint as Marvel’s clamorous, joke-spewing Drax the Destroyer coming to a close, Bautista proves himself to be an accomplished dramatic actor with his subtle performance as Leonard.
Unlike his fellow actors, Bautista understood how to infuse his performance with a believable sense of dread without ever raising his voice or wildly gesticulating. The gentle tone and subtle movements Bautista exhibits not only help ground the occasionally outlandish plot but also perfectly reflect his character’s occupation as a second-grade teacher.
The writing of Bautista’s character is also unexpectedly nuanced. When Leonard runs to a sink and retches following a gruesome moment, the audience understands that the initially intimidating home invader is, in truth, an everyday person who feels unnaturally compelled to perform horrible acts.
The writing also succeeds in its display of the enduring love between Eric and Andrew. The usage of well-placed flashbacks that depict the couple’s struggles against homophobia and their unyielding care for one another and their adopted daughter gave the film’s final act an unexpected emotional punch.
It is a shame, therefore, that the final act’s attempts to tug at viewers’ heartstrings are undermined by an anticlimactic epilogue overflowing with misplaced optimism. Shyamalan’s choice to deviate from the novel’s more ambiguous conclusion significantly weakens the power of the story, undermining its immersive darkness with an overly convenient and bizarrely sunny resolution.
Ultimately, in spite of strong direction, some tense scenes and a captivating performance by Bautista, “Knock at the Cabin” fails to reach the heights to which it aspires. An unfortunate waste of narrative potential, the film is sadly doomed to adorn the mile-high pile of mildly intriguing thrillers that comprise Shyamalan’s career.
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