Say what you will about the films of M. Night Shyamalan: they tend to be short, dropping just enough clues about the inevitable impending twist that they don’t wear out their welcome. And Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin has relative brevity going for it, at least. But instead of short and fleet, it’s short and fat, trundling along with the solemnity of an elephant bearing a heavy golden basket of pseudo-spirituality. It’s suspenseful enough, but the tension it generates is the unpleasant kind, particularly in the way it exposes a very young character to some truly terrifying sights and experiences, only to wave away any possible effect on her. (The idea seems to be that she’s so bright she’ll get over it.) Worse yet, it’s so eagerly progressive in its social views that it’s almost retrograde: beyond merely insisting on the normalcy of the idea that a child might have two dads, the plot hinges on the novelty of it. With Knock at the Cabin Shyamalan may be trying to change minds and hearts, even more than he’s trying to scare us. But even by Shyamalan’s usual standard of reminding us that he’s a thinker of deep thoughts as well as an entertainer, the result is cumbersomely preachy.
Adorably precocious grade-schooler Wen (Kristen Cui), dressed in a quaintly hip smock-and-sweater outfit straight out of a Scandinavian children’s clothing catalog, is hopping through the forest collecting grasshoppers when she’s approached, in characteristically foreboding Shyamalan fashion, by a heavy man in heavy boots. His meaty arms are covered in tattoos, but his eyes are kind—because this is Dave Bautista we’re talking about. This man, who identifies himself as Leonard, says he wants to make friends with Wen, and quickly learns her name, her favorite movie, and that she has two dads—the family is in the area on vacation, having rented a luxuriously rustic cabin for their getaway.
He also has a warning for her: regretfully, he and his “friends”—as yet unseen, though we hear them rustling in the brush as they approach—are on a crucial mission, and Wen must persuade her parents to let them into the house. If they won’t, the group will have to force their way in. This sounds like a bad bargain to Wen, let alone to the audience, and she runs to warn her fathers, Daddy Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Daddy Andrew (Ben Aldridge), though they read her chatter as a kid’s fantasy. Before long, Leonard and his three associates—Nikki Amuka-Bird’s calm, kindly Sabrina, Rupert Grint’s hotheaded Redmond and Abby Quinn’s spacey Adriane, all bearing threatening homemade weapons that they refer to as “tools”—have broken into the house like hungry zombies, making the family their captives as they spin out a shared apocalyptic vision involving plague, black skies and other stuff. Only Wen’s family can halt this horrific progression of events, but it will require an unspeakable sacrifice.
To tell you much more about Knock at the Cabin would violate the vow of near-silence required of nearly everyone who sees a Shyamalan movie before the general public does. Shyamalan and fellow screenwriters Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman have adapted the movie from Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 horror novel The Cabin at the End of the World, though it appears they have taken significant liberties with the ending. There’s some knockabout violence, though the grislier events happen off-camera, suggested rather than shown. (Shyamalan has always been discreet that way.) And uncharacteristically for Shyamalan, there’s no real twist ending. By midfilm, you can pretty much see where the story is headed.
Yet why, exactly, has this particular family been chosen by the grand, string-pulling whomever to be the saviors of the world? That’s a question the movie never quite answers, though it’s hinted that the love between Wen, Daddy Andrew, and Daddy Eric is so intense and pure that it only stands to reason they’ve been chosen as humanity’s last hope. The movie’s finest scenes are its flashbacks, showing Eric and Andrew doing both average and special things. There’s a tense, sad “meeting the parents” scene that signals family disapproval of the union. At one point the two men profess both their love and their annoyance with one another in a bar, just before a life-changing event occurs there. And when they first meet Wen as an infant, having trekked to a hospital somewhere in Asia to adopt her, they can’t reveal to the nurses that they’re a couple, but their joy at welcoming this snuggly little bundle into their arms is its own truth.
Aldridge and Groff are good enough actors to pull all of this off without undue sentimentality. Yet the movie around them vibrates with special pleading. Every other minute it beams a signal that announces, “Look at these amazing gay dads!” And naturally, they’re the ones who, in their selflessness—and despite, or maybe because of, their history of being persecuted for who they are—are asked to make the ultimate offering to the vengeful god who rules the movie.
Early in the film, Wen explains to Leonard in exasperation that a guidance counselor at her school repeatedly gushes how awesome it is that she has two fathers. Yet the movie does the same thing, penning this modern but not so out-of-the ordinary family into their own little petting zoo. Shyamalan seems to be in a particularly pensive mood here, ruminating on the fact that we’re destroying our world, but also, it seems, hoping that love, along with a change in our thinking, might save it. But he also can’t resist inserting himself into this tightly conscripted little circle: the whole movie takes place in and around that remote cabin, but he still finds a way to assert his presence via his traditional Hitchcock-style cameo. Knock at the Cabin may be one of Shyamalan’s most serious-minded movies, but even as the world may be ending, he can’t resist a little in-joke. His fans expect it, and he’s a crowd-pleaser above all.
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