Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Written by Patrick Hao
Since the memeification of M. Night Shyamalan that reached its apex with “After Earth,” Shyamalan has continually bet on himself by keeping his budgets low and even self-financing some of his films. This has made his Universal Pictures run of movies, some of the most formally and visually interesting films being released in the Hollywood studio system. “Knock at the Cabin,” continues this interesting part of Shyamalan’s career as he continues to develop a cinematic language that is distinctly his, as well as an earnest exploration of the dynamics between family and faith that has been persistent since his debut feature in “Praying with Anger.”
“Knock at the Cabin” uses the simple premise of an impossible question to explore the nooks and crannies that belie the choice. A queer couple, Andrew (Ben Eldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff), are in an idyllic cabin in the woods with their adopted seven-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). While catching grasshoppers, a large soft-spoken man, Leonard (Dave Bautista), approached Wen. His manner of speaking is calm and disarming, but Shyamalan never lets the audience forget just how massive and menacing Bautista’s physicality is. Leonard is accompanied by three other strangers: a nurse (Nikka Amuka-Bird), a cook (Abby Quinn), and a homophobe (Rupert Grint).
This quartet does not represent your usual conception of home invaders. They are brandishing homemade weapons and are pensive and amateurish in their actions. But, their determination comes from their ultimate belief in what they have to do. They have to prevent the apocalypse which requires them to convince whoever is inhabiting the cabin when they arrive to decide to sacrifice one of themselves collectively. This decision cannot be made by force or coercion, but by a true willingness to sacrifice for the sake of humanity continuing.
What follows is a true rumination on the dynamics of faith, family, love, and queerness’ existence in the world that often marginalizes that very concept. While as a filmmaker, Shyamalan has often been compared to Spielberg, but in preoccupation, Shyamalan might be more akin to Scorsese in the way his characters have a torturous relationship with faith and dogma. Shyamalan’s characters are often cursed (or some might argue) blessed with particular knowledge or ability, often being put into difficult positions because of it.
This curse is ever present in the characters of “Knock at the Cabin.” The four invaders were presented with visions of the apocalypse accompanied by several biblical-style plagues of tsunamis and global pandemics. The couple of Andrew and Eric are plagued with the choice of sacrificing their love and family, one that has been so difficult for them to achieve. Throughout the standoff between the invaders and the couple, the film will often cut to vignettes of their past, both as a welcome respite from the tension and to give a deeper dimension to what exactly they are sacrificing. While Eric has had a more pleasant experience in the world with his sexuality, maybe due to his faith in a higher power, Andrew has been absolutely beaten by the world, both metaphorically and literally, for his queerness. The film becomes less a battle between the invaders and the couple than a rumination between cynicism and self-sacrifice in the face of a broken world that spits on you. “Knock at the Cabin” is Shyamalan’s “Last Temptation of Christ.”
And all of this is beautifully conveyed through faces. Continuing the formal daring he displayed in “Old,” Shyamalan employs the close-up to a great degree trusting his actors to convey the turmoil of the situation. By utilizing deep focus in the close-up, it is almost as if it is allowing us to look straight into the eyes and soul of the person on screen. This is a movie of people imploring others to believe in their words after all. He is daring the audience to find fault and lies between the invaders’ tears. Bautista is especially effective as his worn face implies a life lived that has made him the soft-spoken empathetic bringer of bad news. His lips quiver as he relays the tale of armageddon, frequently apologizing for the violence he causes. In fact, all the performances are good, especially as they deliver Shyamalan’s trademark dialogue which feels especially Hemingway-esque in this film, which works in its blunt didacticism as the characters try to implore each other to make the “right” decision.
As a fan of the absurdity of true Christian faith-based films, Shyamalan’s conception of faith in the Catholic sense, despite having a Hindu background, continues to be fascinating. Once again, like Scorsese, it is not about the belief in a God of any religion. Like anything in fiction, the choice is not literal but a choice in humanity. This is why the complaints about the deviations from the novel this film is based on by Paul Tremblay seem misguided. Shyamalan and Tremblay are clearly exploring different things with the same premise. Tremblay’s novel seemingly comes from a place of righteous anger, while Shyamalan has always been earnest in his belief in the love of family and people. The ending is a natural result of those worldviews.
But all the fighting over this movie, even before its release, just belies the fact that there are very few filmmakers out there who can cause such fervor and who seem as frequently misunderstood as M. Night Shyamalan. And in the end, does all this debate really matter as we head to the end of the world?
“Knock at the Cabin” Trailer