REVIEW: Knock at the Cabin (2023)

Dave Bautista (left) in M. Night Shyamalan’s KNOCK AT THE CABIN — PHOTO. Universal Pictures.

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan — Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman.

Like you may have read previously elsewhere, M. Night Shyamalan was once dubbed ‘the next Spielberg.’ It was meant as a great honor but became a bit of a challenge to live up to. After four or five disappointments in a row between the mid-2000s to the early 2010s, Shyamalan was no longer being compared to Spielberg but rather known for his reliance on twists and his cameo appearances, as well as for his kind of unconvincing dialogue. With The Visit and Split, fans of his — and I consider myself a fan — started to believe that he was making a return to form with simpler premises and genuinely strong films. Then Glass was released — the conclusion to his Unbreakable trilogy — and it was another crushing disappointment — a cruel twist on his supposed ‘return to form’ for fans of his. He’s not done, though. In 2021, he released Old to mixed reviews, and, this year, he’s got Knock at the Cabin to showcase his talents with. Unfortunately, neither of those films fully worked for me. They aren’t outright disasters like some of the works that derailed his career, but even though they indicate that Shyamalan is on his way back, they also show that he still has a ways to go before being back ‘in form.’

Based on Paul G. Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World, M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin follows Wen (played by Kristen Cui), a seven-year-old girl, and her two fathers (Eric played by Jonathan Groff, and Andrew played by Ben Aldridge) on a vacation in a remote cabin in the woods. While by herself, Wen is approached by a giant but soft-spoken stranger named Leonard (played by Dave Bautista) who informs her that she and her family have to help him save the world. Soon Wen flees to her fathers and together they hide inside the cabin, but Leonard and three other equally strong-willed people are adamant that they must get inside so that they can make the family make the choice to sacrifice one of the family members to save the rest of the world. 

Many of the same problems that I had with Old persist with Knock at the Cabin. Shyamalan’s dialogue often feels wooden, unnatural, or matter-of-fact, especially when Shyamalan writes for children (this was a gigantic problem with Old but less so here). Furthermore, just like with Old, though the premise and initial setup are genuinely interesting and gripping, both films struggle to move on to the next phase of the plot. The patterns of both films are quite repetitive and the films end up feeling static or stuck in place (this feels like a significant problem here, as the suspense eventually just fizzles out). Whereas Old was about this mysterious beach on which people aged rapidly (and that people struggled to leave), Knock at the Cabin boils down to being a home invasion film where characters try to convince each other that the world is actually ending and that a sacrifice has to be made. 

Of course, you could say that both Old and Knock at the Cabin are based on previously existing source material that Shyamalan didn’t write (it’s true), but even so, he struggles to move the plot along in interesting ways and, in my opinion, he fails to stick the landing in both films. I have read up on the ending of Paul G. Tremblay’s novel, and I think Shyamalan’s alterations (and from what I understand, his ending deviates significantly from the source material) make it a much less interesting final act (it should go without saying that it’s a huge no-no to change an ending for the worse). For one, I think the film spells everything out too much. Also, its many glimpse-like flashbacks reveal unrealized potential and drama (especially given the family dynamics). I think Shyamalan should’ve dared to stick to the original ending even though parts of it are very dark.

Still, there are some good things here. In general, Shyamalan shoots this thriller quite well. The visual language grabs you, in spite of the repetitiveness of the sacrificial plea. I also think Dave Bautista is genuinely good here, as the soft-spoken but not-so-gentle giant. He is an actor who constantly takes on interesting projects, and Bautista doesn’t disappoint here. He’s all in and does a lot with very little. To add to that, it’s also just a fascinating story that deals with a wide variety of interesting apocalyptic conundrums. Such as, what it will take for people to give up on their attachments and how much pain someone must witness or be at fault for before they choose to sacrifice themselves or their own. Again, though, I don’t think the film does enough with these themes. 

So, in conclusion, while Knock at the Cabin is somewhat of a step forward for M. Night Shyamalan when compared to both Glass and Old, I would not classify it as a return to form. He’s still a promising and gifted filmmaker, but his alterations and his execution hold the story back, in spite of a strong performance from Dave Bautista. 

5.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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