M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography, despite uneven critical reception, has still felt consistently personal to him as a filmmaker Each of his high-concept genre films from the last decade has been infused with strong thematics: feelings of past regret in The Visit (2015), motivation or survival in Split (2017) or anxieties surrounding our bodies and the passage of time in Old (2021). His newest, Knock at the Cabin, is no different, except that it coalesces all previously listed emotions in a single fast-tracked runtime.
When their vacation in a remote cabin is cut short, Eric (Jonathan Groff), his partner Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) must confront and evade Leonard (Dave Bautista) and his colleagues, an eclectic group who has arrived to explain that one of them must die in order to stop the end of the world.
In my opinion, Shyamalan’s crop of well-crafted, mid-budget, wild-at-heart thrillers from the past decade have been his best (although his character-motivated dramas from the 90s and early 200s are undoubtedly classics). His trend of more prestigious works or even Spielberg-esque whimsy has been completely eradicated by this point – now, he’s only focused on pure, well-crafted schlock, manifesting only the fundamental funds to exercise whatever weird Tales from the Crypt or Twilight Zone-type stories he’s channeling.
Knock at the Cabin feels somewhat similar in concept to his previous film, Old. Both Old and his latest portray an ebullient, existential terror in body logistics and concrete / life-changing decision-making that recoil to damaging consequences. Much like Old, Knock at the Cabin’s use of an isolated, singular location weaponizes a setting that most people have positive memories of (a sunny beach and homely, quiet woods). Furthermore, Shyamalan makes the choice to shoot both these locales in unbelievable, unsettling ways, using claustrophobic, abstract framing for his confused characters to operate in.
The film’s visuals aid its transformation from a lean, operative home invasion to an unnerving, zealot cult apparatus whose third act comes off like a spiritual successor to a ‘90s thriller. Whether it’s his purposeful hard cuts, mournful closeups of tragically conflicted and confused characters, or use of outside and trusted media to construct narrative, Knock at the Cabin exemplifies Shyamalan’s current M.O. with flying colors while also blending it with emotional markers seen in his previous films.
Although the higher genre creativity of apocalyptic, quick-time logistics is clear here, a looming sense of sadness and brutality is a strong character trope he has resurrected in Knock at the Cabin.
The strongest performance in the film comes from Dave Bautista, who plays the leader of the home invaders. His presence, from the second he creeps on screen, is not only physically intimidating but sorrowful and incredibly melancholy. His calm-and-collected demeanor spouting harrowing apocalyptic outcomes met with his intimidating physical appearance is what really drives his atypical villain arc. Wielding a pair of small glasses and one giant, frightening axe (an intimidating exterior mixed with soft-spoken theoretical jargon), Bautista’s character is a welcome addition to the niche group of cinema’s well-spoken meatheads – think Tom Hardy’s Bane or Lord Humungus from Mad Max 2.
Shyamalan’s filmmaking persistence is an endeavor that I find an incredible joy to watch with each new release. Knock at the Cabin is not only a fine new addition to his canon, but also ranks as one of his best films yet. From its underlying paranoia and desolation to its precision editing and photography, it’s clear he’s still as innovative with his budgets and locations as he’s ever been. The rumors are thus true: M. Night has yet another banger on his hands.