KNOCK AT THE CABIN
DIRECTOR M. Night Shyamalan
CAST Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Dave Bautista, Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-bird, Kristen Cui
PLOT Eric (Groff), Andrew (Aldridge) and their young daughter Wen (Cui) decide to get away from it all at an idyllic cabin in the woods. Their bliss is cut short when four strangers, led by the mysterious Leonard (Bautista), turn up to declare that one of them must be sacrificed to prevent the end of the world.
AFTER SPECTRAL THERAPISTS, agriculturally inclined aliens and homicidal house plants, it’s quite refreshing to be confronted by an M. Night Shyamalan production in which the most ridiculous thing is the luxurious in-house library at an Airbnb. The film’s remote getaway (4.96 rating — Wi-fi, free parking and end-of-days cultists included) is a bolt-hole to die for. It is, in fact, the perfect place for Eric (Jonathan Groff ), Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Wen (Kristen Cui) to spend some family time in the bosom of mother nature. It’s also, at first glance, an eye-rollingly tired setting for a bit of stabby-stabby horror. But Shyamalan is never one to do things by the book, and this eschatological thriller, like its setting, has more going on than a cursory glance at its listing would suggest.
Adapted from Paul Tremblay’s harrowing 2018 novel The Cabin At The End Of The World, this is a tighter, simpler tale than many of the filmmaker’s original flights of fancy. It also wastes no time whatsoever. We’ve barely a moment to catch our breath before the family’s arboreal paradise is upended, an oppressive and sinister air descending after less than five minutes of screen time. Wen, gleefully catching grasshoppers in the woods, sees the hulking form of Leonard (Dave Bautista), trudging towards her in a crisp, short-sleeved missionary shirt and looking like a headliner for Mormon Summerslam. He is swiftly joined by companions Sabrina (Nikki Amukabird), Redmond (Rupert Grint) and Adriane (Abby Quinn) — each wielding a medieval-looking instrument of torture — who inform the family they have a particularly difficult choice to make.
The secluded location and home-invasion set-up might be as old as the hills, but that’s the extent to which Knock At The Cabin plays by standard rules. This isn’t a horror that trades in shock and gore, adopting instead a deceptively soft, almost gentle air as it lays out the boundless monstrosity of the family’s quandary. The bursts of savage violence, when they come, are potent but never lurid, relying on psychological wounds over splatter to make their point.
Paranoia, denial and twisted attempts at persuasion are the film’s primary tools, character and performance packing far more punch than the 9mm pistol locked out of reach in the boot of Andrew’s car. Groff and Aldridge’s rising panic is palpable, fuelling the suffocating tension, which mounts almost without respite over the course of 100 agonising minutes. Bautista is the standout, though, here gifted with what seems like more lines than all his previous screen roles combined. He perfectly undercuts Leonard’s physical menace with an almost childlike tenderness that’s chilling in its affable restraint — all politeness and consideration, even when staving in skulls.
Book fans might be disappointed to see some of the source material’s edges sanded off, and not all of Shyamalan’s choices land as intended, but this is a brutally stressful and effective thriller that doesn’t need a third-act rug-pull to leave the audience breathless.
A harrowing, economical thriller that will sit with you for days, this is Shyamalan’s best film in years, and a calling card for Bautista in his strongest performance yet.