Most of M. Night Shyamalan’s output since Unbreakable has amounted to the cinematic equivalent of a wet willie. The bad thing is most of these movies have actually been about three-fourths good: Shyamalan will often dupe us with a fascinating-if-flawed premise, charged with the alternating current of moving character beats and genuinely chilling atmospherics. Then, somewhere in the final act, the famously clever director will dip an index finger into his mouth and plunge it deep into our ears. Listen carefully on unforgivable misfires like Old and Glass, and you can practically hear Shyamalan cackling with each slobbery swirl.
Thankfully, we get no such shenanigans during Knock at the Cabin: The movie can’t implode, as it’s resoundingly mediocre right from the start. That’s not to say there aren’t maddening bursts of skill stitched into the fabric of this meh-sterpiece. I almost felt guilty for disliking so much of it. Almost.
Based on Paul Tremblay’s acclaimed novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, the story kicks off simply enough: Somewhere deep in the woods, Wen, a precocious little girl (Kristen Cui), catches grasshoppers in a jar. She catalogues their behavior like a pint-sized entomologist, dutifully recording that one bug is prone to farting.
This idyllic scene is broken up by the arrival of a hulking, awkwardly friendly stranger. Leonard (Dave Bautista) plops down next to Wen and speaks with the jovial menace of a deranged cult leader. They pluck petals from a daisy and share secrets. (This moment recalls Lyndon Johnson’s legendary campaign ad from 1964.) It’s here that Leonard drops a terrible truth bomb: This meeting is no coincidence. Leonard has urgent and unsettling business with Wen’s dads, and she must take him to meet them. She recoils in horror, and races to the cabin where her family is staying.
Wen informs her dads of this terrifying encounter, and they quickly bolt the doors. Eric (Jonathan Groff) attempts to call the police, but the phone lines have been cut. Andrew (Ben Aldridge) has a gun in the trunk of their car. Unfortunately, it’s too late. Leonard and three companions surround the house and begin an all-out assault. Eric and Andrew mount a brave defense, but are overrun.
The fathers are placed in chairs and bound at the hands and feet. Their captors take a moment to introduce themselves: Leonard was a middle school teacher. Redmond (Rupert Grint) is an ex-con with a fiery temper. Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) once worked as a nurse. Finally, Adriane (Abby Quinn) plated food at a fancy New York restaurant.
With pleasantries out of the way, these disparate souls share their raison d’etre, and it sounds like sheer lunacy: The apocalypse is nigh, and the inhabitants of this cabin are the only ones who can stop it. Either Eric, Andrew, or Wen must be sacrificed, and the family has to designate that person. Then, they themselves must do the killing. There can be no suicides. If the family fails in their mission, the world will descend into Old Testament plagues. The longer they delay, the worse it gets.
From that dour setup springs a tense, propulsive thriller. A psychological battle erupts between the prisoners and their captors, and these emotionally charged scenes are the strongest in the film. For all his faults, Shyamalan is an actor’s director, and he draws excellent performances from this top-notch cast. Groff and Aldridge rate particularly strong, imbuing Eric and Andrew with a potent blend of cleverness, vulnerability, and durable decency. Film’s like this often muddy the line between good and evil, but there’s never doubt who Cabin‘s heroes truly are.
As for the bad guys, Bautista’s stilted stoicism is perfect for Leonard. His voice rarely rises above a gravelly mumble, making his apocalyptic monologues that much spookier. Grint is startlingly effective as the twitchy bigot, even if his Bah-ston accent pulls a vanishing act every now and then. Amuka-Bird helps make Sabrina the villains’ only source of empathy, while Quinn provides the ironic dorkiness. These whack-jobs may or may not speak the truth, but it’s easy enough to believe that they’ve all drunk deeply from the Kool-Aid vats.
With all that said, this is still a Shyamalan film. That means at some point, this line drive gets sent to deep left field. When it comes to chasing the story out to the warning track, I suspect your mind will already be made. For my part, I never quite bought into Cabin‘s vibe of goofy self-seriousness. It’s well-acted and never boring, but it just never gels. If you’re gonna enjoy this film more than I did, get ready to suspend quite a bit of disbelief. And be on the lookout for another wet willie.
100 min. R. Peacock.