His name is synonymous with ‘the twist ending’. The Sixth Sense, Signs, and The Happening (of which the twist was that Mark Wahlberg was actually convincing as a teacher) – all the original works of the equally praised and criticised filmmaker, M. Night Shyamalan. After his hot streak of films in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Shyamalan unfortunately had a slight speed bump in his career, producing films such as The Last Airbender and After Earth. And while there may be die-hard Shyamalan enthusiasts who have now retrospectively found some diamond in the rough of those films, there was a time in which it was thought the peak of Shyamalan’s filmmaking career had truly come and gone.
Then in 2015, his found footage horror film The Visit sparked interest from the mainstream audiences, only for a true comeback to be solidified when the critically acclaimed and box office smashing Split won audiences over. 8 years on and 2 more films, plus the terrifyingly great Apple TV+ series Servant, in the bag, Shyamalan is ready to up the ante, the tension and the brutality in his adaptation of the novel, ‘The Cabin at the End of the World’ from writer Paul Tremblay, Knock at the Cabin.
While vacationing in a secluded forest cabin, Wen (Kristen Cui), a young girl, innocently plays in the yard while her parents, Eric (Jonathon Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) enjoy some relaxation on the back patio. Wasting no time getting into the meat of the story, Wen is eerily and slowly approached by a intimidatingly large presence, emerging from the tree line ahead. Introducing himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista), he attempts to put Wen at ease by admitting he is there to befriend her, but also that he needs her to understand that she and her parents will have to make an incredibly important decision that day.
Scared by the looming presence of Leonard, and with the sudden addition of three more people emerging from the depths of the forest with makeshift, medieval-like weapons, Wen runs to Eric and Andrew, who barricade themselves inside the cabin. However, it’s not long before Leonard and his self-labelled ‘associates’ forcefully enter the cabin and ultimately take this unassuming family hostage.
Leonard’s associates include the rough-redneck Redmond (Rupert Grint), the fast talking and frenetic Ardiane (Abby Quinn), and the sympathetic nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird). Towering over the hogtied family, Leonard puts forward an impossible and intense ultimatum – that one family member must be chosen to die, or the apocalypse will take the lives of everyone on Earth.
Shyamalan thrusts the audience immediately into the tense tone and atmosphere of Knock At The Cabin. Leonard’s initial encounter with Wen starts the movie at about an 8 on the ‘intensity meter’, and there is barely a second of breathing room as Shyamalan crafts a story and world that just feels more and more relentless as each reveal and twist plays out on screen. This film is the definition of heart-racing, white-knuckling cinema, and in all honesty, it’s Shyamalan’s best film since Unbreakable in 2000.
But it’s not just Shyamalan’s fantastic use of tension that makes this film great (even though it is the genre he is most well known for, and he uses all his best tricks in this film to make the feeling so apparent), but on a technical level, Shyamalan’s direction is one of a filmmaker who has put all his years of experience in this craft on screen. There are long takes that move around the cabin, with blocking showcasing actors both in and out of the location that add to the anxiety inducing, non-stop energy that this film carries. Shyamalan also more often that not chooses to show the brutal violence sparingly, leaving a more disturbing impact on the reasoning behind each use of violence. Whether is sweeping shots back and forth that build the anxiety, or tense, still close ups creating a sense of unease, Knock At The Cabin is the work of a director who has perfected the art of terror and tension.
The content with in the story also lends to being one of the darker toned films in Shyamalan’s filmography. While I have read Tremblay’s original novel as of yet, a quick read of the synopsis was enough see what liberties Shyamalan had taken with his co-written screenplay adaptation. And while there are far more disturbing and shocking elements in the novel, Shyamalan seemingly still manages to capture the atmospheric dread of the source material with a constant feeling that no one is safe, and that doom comes for all, no matter what decision is made.
The characters of Knock at the Cabin are truly fascinating, specifically Leonard, who may seemingly come across as a brooding threat and that’s it, but there is a complex layer added to his character in moments of authentic empathy. Leonard has an odd compassion for Eric and Andrew when he constantly reminds them that he understands what a difficult position they are in. Leonard often corrects the couple when they make accusations that this is a hate crime due to their sexuality, citing that he was brought to them unknowing who they were, but led by visions of the cabin itself. And while it would understandable that the initial audience reaction is that Leonard is just a delusional religious extremist, there is a nuanced softness in Bautista’s performance that will pull and push at your read on Leonard as a character. This is undoubtedly Bautista’s best work as an actor, using both his physically prowess to intimidate, but also using more reserved and timid demeanour to psychologically mess with both Eric and Andrew, and us as the audience.
In fact, acting wise, there are no weak performances in Knock at The Cabin. Groff and Aldridge are able to show off a side of them we haven’t seen, donning the heroes under duress, with a slight touch of action-men for good measure. Rupert Grint exudes disgust both physically as a character who looks like how you would assume they smell, but also as he leans fully into the disgruntled and rude Southern-rural American type. Ardiane is the character that gets pushed to the outer rim the most, but Abby Quinn still gets a fantastic scene to shine. And finally, Nikki Amuka-Bird’s fantastic performance as Sabrina will add even more complexity to the story, because he character is incredibly conflicted about what is happening, despite her strong beliefs in what their mission is.
Knock at the Cabin will have you gripped from start to finish. This is undoubtedly M. Night Shyamalan’s most tense and thematically darkest film to date, but it is also up there as one of his best. It’s a gripping story, anchored by Dave Bautista’s best performance to date, and is absolutely one not to be missed in the cinemas!
Knock at the Cabin is in cinemas February 2.
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