Monday, February 13, 2023

Knock at the Cabin is worth a visit for M. Night Shyamalan and Dave Bautista devotees

Knock at the Cabin begins with grasshoppers. Youngster Wen (Kirsten Cui) is catching them in a jar while on vacation in a cabin with her dads, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). She's never mean to these bugs and always promises to release them later, but these insects are objectively at the mercy of a larger being they cannot hope to control. Wen and her parents soon find themselves in similar circumstances once a quartet of armed human beings, led by Leonard (Dave Bautista), invade their cabin and hold the family hostage. Leonard then divulges to their trio of captives that he and his "work friends" have come with a mission: this family will need to sacrifice one of its members to prevent the apocalypse. A brutal choice will need to be made or else hundreds of millions will perish.

While two of Shyamalan's earliest directorial efforts (Wide Awake and The Sixth Sense) were told through the eyes of children, Knock at the Cabin represents another modern-era effort from this filmmaker (following Old) that's all about families grappling with mortality. He's gone from telling stories about characters at the start of their lives to spinning yarns about people who are all too aware that death could be coming any minute. Cabin opts to use this recognition for grim suspenseful sequences rather than an overabundance of trashy thrills like Old, but the thematic fascination remains the same. Given how this concept fascinates him, it's no wonder Shyamalan was drawn to adapting Paul G. Tremblay's novel The Cabin at the End of the World.

Beyond providing an intriguing demonstration of where Shyamalan's thematic fascinations are currently, Knock at the Cabin proves sufficient in providing some gripping thrills and not insulting your intelligence along the way. The screenplay by Shyamalan as well as Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman shows remarkable constraint in keeping the action contained to only the titular cabin, which works wonders in accentuating a claustrophobic aura that can lend grand significance to the tiniest gestures. Even the flashback scenes to earlier moments in Eric and Andrew's life sprinkled throughout the runtime manage to reinforce the intentionally cramped nature of the story by framing these characters in interior environments, often having to suppress parts of themselves. 

The stripped-down aesthetic also offers a chance for a talented cast of actors to deliver a bunch of solid performances. Splattered all over the posters and other marketing materials, Dave Bautista is the big-name draw here and he's fun playing against type as a soft-spoken man capable of exacting violence for a "righteous" cause. It's not a totally original juxtaposition, but Bautista's earnestness in delivering lines about how a children's show "must teach empathy and tolerance...I like that" gives it a jolt of uniqueness. For my money, the best performer in the movie, though, is Abby Quinn as Adriane, one of the four people convinced the apocalypse is nigh. Quinn's got some of the clumsiest dialogue in Knock at the Cabin, but she proves quite capable of nailing intentionally funny moments and providing moments of moving vulnerability. It's a complicated performance that Quinn is commendable in.

The suspense-driven sequence and performances in Knock at the Cabin are stellar, but the feature does, unfortunately, succumb to certain recurring faults in Shyamalan's directorial efforts. For one thing, like Old, Knock at the Cabin's final 20 minutes features some clumsy expository dialogue that just spells out the motivation and underlying thematic motivation for every bad thing we just saw. Ambiguity is your friend when it comes to making scary movies, but Cabin struggles to embrace that quality. The character of Andrew, meanwhile, is strangely written, possibly because he's the character whose outside life keeps getting referenced the most out of all the people trapped in this cabin. Awkward mentions of his job or abrupt reveals about how much time he's spent in therapy just feel out of place in a movie that works best when we don't know what's going on. Again, restraint and ambiguity, they're your friend.

Also, M. Night Shyamalan, I don't know what happened between you and James Newton Howard (who composed all his works from The Sixth Sense through After Earth) but y'all need to patch things up. Some of Howard's best works as a composer came through his collaborations with Shyamalan, with this artist excelling in delivering such big and memorable orchestral accompaniments in movies like Signs. Starting with Split, though, Shyamalan has embraced a series of lesser-known composers that don't deliver bad work per see, just stuff that's never good enough to make you stop wondering "what could James Newton Howard have done with this material?" Knock at the Cabin composer Herdís Stefánsdóttir, alas, falls prey to this problem, his compositions just never being super remarkable even if one didn't have a bevy of Howard/Shyamalan collaborations to compare them to. Let's get the Howard/Shyamalan and back together again soon! The world needs it!

Knock at the Cabin suffers from some of the issues that dragged down earlier M. Night Shyamalan misfires like The Village or Lady in the Water, but being firmly back in the world of small-scale thrillers (after a detour into blockbusters with The Last Airbender and After Earth) continues to suit this filmmaker well. Constrained to minimal characters and one primary location brings out some imaginative thrills and nicely-executed bursts of grim darkness in Shyamalan's directing. Granted, even more restraint would've helped this movie live up to the likes of Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense. But if you just want to appreciate some suspenseful set pieces and the talents of actors like Dave Bautista, Knock at the Cabin is, as a Simpsons character would say, a perfectly cromulent experience.

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