Knock at the Cabin is a Study in Shyamalan Smallness

When I first heard that Paul Tremblay, one of my favourite horror writers, was getting the adaptation treatment for the first time ,I was extremely pumped. Then news of Scott Cooper (Hostiles, The Pale Blue Eye) adapting Tremblay’s brilliant exorcism drama, A Head Full of Ghosts, went completely silent. I was miffed – a great writer’s work in my preferred genre going to waste. Then, the monkey’s paw closed a finger. I did get my Paul Tremblay adaptation, but it was of a novel that I was slightly less invested in – and, with it was being directed by M Night Shyamalan. I did not have high hopes.

Knock at the Cabin, based on the arguably more cinematically-named The Cabin at the End of the World, involves a gay couple (Johnathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) and their adopted daughter who are taken hostage by some doomsdayers (led by wrestling’s best export, Dave Bautista) and told that one of the three must be sacrificed by the other two in order to avert the apocalypse. Why would that stop the end of the world? Fuck knows, don’t worry about it, it’s not really the point. What is important is that as the plot for a thriller it would take a really awful filmmaker to fuck it up.

M Night Shyamalan is not an awful filmmaker, which is one of the many frustrating things about him – he’s good, he’s bad, he’s amazing, he’s dreadful, he’s frustratingly unpredictable. But, nearly twenty-five years after The Sixth Sense put him on the mainstream map, it’s easier to see what he needs to make a really good movie. No, not twists, he needs boundaries. All of his best movies are marked by boundaries: The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are saved from being X-Men stories by being grounded in character work and emotional cause and effect. Little Haley can see dead people, big Bruce is indestructible, Shyamalan plays out how these powers effect the character’s lives rather than what can be done for mankind like a traditional blockbuster. Split and The Visit are engaging because of the smallness of their stories: a handful of cast members, and a steady feeling of escalation. Even stories like Signs, dealing with a global phenomenon, succeed due to their focus on a small cast and character work. The Happening was a po-faced take on the end of the world that enamoured its director so much that he forgot to make a cogent movie around it. Glass shows how fragile the ideas of Unbreakable and Split are when they are expanded even if only for messy cultural commentary. Calling him the next Spielberg may have been the worst thing to happen to Shyamalan’s ego because he then spent a large and infamous chunk on his career living up to that label. He’s not a world-builder, The Last Airbender should be proof of that.

Which is exactly why Knock at the Cabin works so well. It’s a closed loop plot that plays out with that familiar escalation. This is what Shyamalan’s really awful movies miss; a taut, tense feeling of building towards an unpredictable climax, desicions driven by character work instead of by enormous outside forces. Universally excellent performances, especially from Bautista and Groff, elevate the occasionally-wobbly script into something that’s genuinely compelling, and Shyamalan makes the most of the tight space to build the tension and horror as things spin wildly out of control. Even though it’s a world-ending story, it’s fundamentally one about this family, and the way the world has treated them – and whether that world, for all it’s cruelty, is even worth saving.

All of this is to say that Knock at the Cabin is definitely worth your time. I can’t say much about the details but it has an unpleasant off-kilter vibe to the performances and direction that the awful Old tried desperately for and never got close. It’s just a really good, high-concept yet neatly delivered thriller. Also, Jonathan Groff sings a little, so…five stars, no notes!

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By Kevin Boyle

(header image via IMDB)

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