Knock at the Cabin movie review: there appears to be an apocalypse happening

MaryAnn’s quick take: There is only one thing worse than an M. Night Shyamalan movie with a twist ending. And that is one without a twist ending. Feels like a faith-based movie trying to sneak in under a disingenuous wire.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): have not been a fan of M. Night Shyamalan in many years
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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If Oscar Wilde was alive and writing film criticism today, he might say something like this:

There is only one thing worse than an M. Night Shyamalan movie with a twist ending. And that is an M. Night Shyamalan movie without a twist ending.

The mind boggles, how Shyamalan started out making movies that were absolutely incredible, dense with emotion and mystery, as fun as they were profound. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable: these were and remain dynamic, commanding works of cinema even without their twist endings; the twists only deepen their power. But then, after a brief foray into movies in which the twists are all they have going for them — *cough* The Village *cough* — the filmmaker shifted gears to making movies without big twists. Because, fair enough: it’s tough to be that clever over and over again.

Knock at the Cabin
They’re not here to do your gardening…

This should have worked out just fine — most movies do not feature big twists — but Shyamalan managed to make this shift in his work feel spiteful. Didn’t we all realize that Shyamalan was telling stories that were going to Change The World? How very dare audiences and film critics especially not appreciate this! (This was the plot of Lady in the Water.) And so, his movies seemed to start saying in their metatext: “Oh, you don’t want twists anymore? Fine. I won’t give you twists anymore. I will give you straightforward movies. So uncomplicated. So. Un. Com. Plic. Ated.”

Hence The Happening, in which someone posits early on that the trees are making people kill themselves… and the movie plods on from there to the conclusion that yes, that is in fact what is actually going on. Two years ago we got Old, in which some people go to a beach that ages them very rapidly… and yes, the beach is aging them rapidly. (In between there were more Shyamalan movies with twists: The Visit, Split. They felt like the director unwittingly parodying himself.)

Now we have Knock at the Cabin, in which four strangers armed with menacing DIY weapons, who otherwise mostly seem like good people, interrupt a nice family vacationing at a remote house in a forest to inform the nice family that they have to sacrifice one of their own members in order to prevent an apocalypse. This happens in the first few minutes of the movie, and nothing that comes afterward will change this.

Knock at the Cabin Rupert Grint
Beware Rupert Grint checking out your curtains…

I mean… even in movies where you’re not waiting for A Twist, you do still anticipate that, you know, matters will intensify and stuff will get messy and muddled, and, I dunno, drama will happen. But, as I’ve said before about a Shyamalan movie, Knock at the Cabin is an overlong first act, no middle act, and then a rushed and unconvincing finale. This is not acceptable in a movie. Or, if it’s going to be, it has to be a helluva lot more… something… than this.

*extremely pinches nose*

The novel this is based on, by Paul Tremblay, is called The Cabin at the End of the World, which is a much better title, and I suspect Shyamalan changed it because it brings too much to mind The Cabin in the Woods, a far, far, far superior movie, one that actually has a sense of humor about and a cinema-history perspective on the human obsession with apocalypses, one that actually grapples with that obsession. I guess we can say that, at the very least, Knock is in keeping with Shyamalan’s ongoing dedication to making movies that do the precise opposite of confronting the current zeitgeist, either to slot into it or to counter it. Somehow, Shyamalan nowadays ends up with movies that achieve the astonishing feat of being neither ironic nor unironic, neither knowing nor innocent. It’s like he’s off in his own little world making movies purely for himself… which is sort of true: he has been self-financing his movies for years. But I wish that the movies that have come of that were even ten percent as intriguing as that provenance suggests they could be.

Knock at the Cabin
It’s probably never a good sign when whatever this is happens in your living room…

So here we have the truly lovely little family of Daddy Eric (Jonathan Groff: Frozen II, The Conspirator) and Daddy Andrew (Ben Aldridge: The Titan, The Railway Man) and their adorable daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), who’s about eight or so. (Every single member of this movie’s cast is incredible. They deserve better than this.) When the outsiders, led by Leonard (Dave Bautista: Dune, My Spy), arrive at their pleasant mountain-lakeside retreat, banging on the door with their scary weapons, demanding to be let in, it seems like a home invasion, perhaps (probably?) motivated by homophobia. But no! The home-invaders –spoiler: they do get inside — earnestly insist that they have no problem whatsoever with this family but were brought together by visions of the end of the world, an end of the world they have seen can be stopped if Eric and Andrew and Wen decide among themselves which of the three of them should die, and then for the other two to kill the third by their own hands. Something something about how the love of this particular family is extra pure and special and hence worthy of sacrificing, etc.

First of all, What the fuck. And not in an enthralling what-the-fuck kind of way, either. This is a cruel and callous way to start a story. (I have not read Tremblay’s novel, but the Wikipedia synopsis suggests that the movie is pretty faithful, plotwise, until the end, which sounds a lot more ambiguous than the concrete absoluteness we get here. The book won Best Horror Novel in the 2019 Bram Stoker Awards from the Horror Writers Association, the members of which presumably know what they’re talking about. So maybe this isn’t cruel or callous in the book. Or maybe it is cruel and callous but works somehow. The How of a story’s telling is so much more important than a simple retelling of the plot can encapsulate, and it’s possible that the book does it better.) And it’s tough to get past that, if you’re an empathetic, unbigoted, not-fundie-Christian viewer. Shyamalan has said that he is not religious, but damn if Knock doesn’t feel like a faith-based movie trying to sneak in under a disingenuous, sealioning, only-asking-questions wire.

Because ALSO, Knock seems to accept as a given that the Christian idea of an apocalypse — like with Four Horsemen and everything — is how the downfall of humanity is gonna go. This is a very unquestioningly Biblical story for someone who professes not to be religious to tell. It’s a bit Stockholm-syndrome-y of an American filmmaker, as if he’s acknowledging the absurdity of the outsized impact of a small minority of endtimes-loving evangelicals on the culture and yet also sincerely asking: What if they’re right?

Knock at the Cabin Dave Bautista Abby Quinn Nikki Amuka-Bird
They’re also not here to consult on the decorating…

The sincerity — the humorless earnestness — of Knock at the Cabin might be its biggest problem. Of course it’s possible for a modern tale of the apocalypse to bring in spiritual or supernatural elements, even ones with a clear Judeo-Christian wellspring, and not make them feel so… inexorable and conclusive. (Stephen King’s The Stand, one of my most favorite books, is a great example.) This movie does not do that. That’s both baffling and deeply unsatisfying.

I love that Daddy Andrew keeps pushing back against what seems like the certain nonsense that the invaders keep spouting. (The invaders also include Rupert Grint [Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Wild Target], Nikki Amuka-Bird [A Private War, Denial] and Abby Quinn [Little Women, Landline]. Again: this cast in amazing. I love them so much. They are the saving grace of this infuriating experience.) I wish the movie was more on his side. I wish the movie had even a little bit of snark for the apparent reality that Daddy Eric’s almost immediate acceptance of the eschaton their invaders are pushing seems to be down to how he has hit his head rather badly and is suffering from a concussion. That you have to have a little bit of brain damage to accept what Knock at the Cabin is offering is saying a lot.

more films like this:
The Mist [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Netflix US]
Us [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV US | Apple TV UK]

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