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How Knock at the Cabin Convinced M. Night Shyamalan to Face the Apocalypse

7 minute read

It’s the end of the world. Or is it?

That’s the terrifying dilemma at the heart of the apocalyptic horror film Knock at the Cabin, in theaters Feb. 3. Based on Paul Tremblay’s award-winning 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie challenges its characters and, in turn, viewers to consider the implications of an impossible choice: save your family or, as the movie’s tagline puts it, save humanity.

At the center of the action is a tight-knit unit—married couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui)—who, while vacationing at a remote cabin, find themselves at the mercy of four armed strangers demanding they willingly sacrifice one of their own to prevent the apocalypse. Only these aren’t your typical home invaders.

The mismatched group is composed of hulking yet soft-spoken teacher Leonard (Dave Bautista), concerned nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), motherly diner cook Adriane (Abby Quinn), and brash ex-con Redmond (Rupert Grint). “We were called and are united by a common vision, which has now become a command that we cannot ignore,” Leonard offers upon their arrival. “If you fail to choose, the world will end.” For the next 90 minutes, we become attached to the captives—then watch them struggle to choose.

Knock at the Cabin, according to Shyamalan, is a dramatized exploration of why the way we define ourselves in relation to others is meaningful. “It’s a fascinating moment in our ethos,” he says. “Our culture has moved toward individualism. Technology really accelerated that and then the pandemic was the final nail in the coffin. Now, here we are at the lowest point of our mental health as a species. Do we find purpose when we define ourselves not only as individuals, but as part of a greater collective?”

In a career spanning more than three decades and grossing over $3.4 billion at the global box office, Shyamalan was the sole writer on 13 of the 14 films he directed before Cabin, and the co-writer on one. When this story was originally presented to him, it was in the form of a screenplay by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman that he describes as a “very straight” adaptation of the book. Despite the rarity of films coming to him largely, if not fully, formed, this one immediately hit home. “Even when I’m thinking about my own ideas, they have to meet this criteria of the form is thrilling but at the center there are human beings grappling emotionally with something,” he says. “This was a 10 on both scales.”

Before Shyamalan put his own spin on the source material, the screenplay was initially floated to him as a producing option. “I wasn’t really thinking of it for myself,” he says. “So when it organically came back to me to consider [writing and directing], it felt very exciting.”

The story, Shyamalan says, reminded him of iconic films like Sophie’s Choice (1982) and Indecent Proposal (1993). “I love when a question is asked of a protagonist that makes you put yourself in their shoes to make a decision,” he says. It’s what he calls a “jury movie,” a thriller with a more nuanced take on the mind-bending final twists the Sixth Sense filmmaker became known for early in his career. The film is not just about making an impossible choice, but whether to believe the strange messengers presenting the choice in the first place. “There isn’t just one moment in the movie, but 15 that are like, ‘Oh my god, I believe them,’ ‘No, I don’t,’ ‘I believe them again,’ ‘Oh my god, it’s not true,’ ‘I can’t believe I believed for this long,’ ‘Wait a minute …,’” he says.

For Groff, that line of thinking greatly influenced his portrayal of Eric, the measured and thoughtful counterpoint to Aldridge’s passionate and quick-tempered Andrew. Eric goes to great lengths to try to understand his captors’ point of view. “For better or worse, I’m quick to believe,” Groff says of his offscreen personality. “I’m not a religious person, but I understand having a deep desire to believe in something.”

Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff in Knock At the Cabin.Courtesy Universal Pictures

Eric is the type of role Groff once believed he’d never have the chance to play. After coming out as gay in 2009, he says he thought he may be relegated to theater for the rest of his career. It’s a world where he’s had great success, earning Tony nominations for Spring Awakening and his role as King George III in Hamilton, his voice landing him a major role in Disney’s Frozen franchise. Nevertheless, he says, “The idea of, nearly 15 years later, being in an M. Night movie centered on a gay married couple with an adopted daughter is pretty mind-blowing to me.”

Even as Eric begins to hear out his captors’ wild theories while Andrew digs his heels further into the belief that they are nothing more than deranged internet-conspiracy theorists, their unbreakable bond is pivotal. It’s a point Groff says Shyamalan hammered home throughout filming: “Don’t forget to play the love.”

The couple’s devotion is palpable, even as humanity’s apparent impending doom looms in reports of extreme weather, plague, and planes falling out of the sky. These in-film news segments deal in “primal, present fears” that have become all the more visceral amid the pandemic, Groff says. “Watching the world get turned upside down evokes something familiar inside of us,” he says. “We start to project what we would do onto the movie. What choice would you make? Are you an Eric or an Andrew?”

To Shyamalan, it’s the movie’s ticking clock that’s most emblematic of many of the real-world problems society is currently up against. “The feeling in the movie that things are coming to an end is not some fictional, alternate version of our world,” he says. “We could make positive decisions, but certainly the time to make them is quickly running out.” Weeks ago, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock, which is meant to reflect the likelihood of human-made destruction, closer to catastrophe than it’s been since its inception in 1947.

It might sound like bleak midwinter viewing, and that’s not entirely inaccurate. But Shyamalan, though his career has had its share of misses—including middling to negative critical reception of his last two films, Old and Glass, respectively—remains a brand name in an industry that, these days, lives and dies on them. It’s expected to shake up a sleepy winter box office that’s seen Avatar: The Way of Water dominate for seven weeks straight.

Fans may flock to his films for the twists on which he built that name, but ultimately, Knock at the Cabin is asking a bit more of them. Through a parable that takes place largely within four walls, it poses questions about the future of humanity and our ability to put the collective whole above individual priorities. It’s a film Shyamalan says helped him explore his feelings about whether he himself has any agency over the fate of the world. But his work seems to indicate he already knows the answer to that question.

“My movies tend to be about characters that come to realize they’re meaningful in some way,” he says. “That there’s a greater thing going on that they’re a part of.”

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com