Long compelled by crises of faith and family, and especially riveted by their metaphysical manifestations, M. Night Shyamalan has been telling stories about doomsday arriving on our doorsteps for more than a quarter-century. And though his latest effort, Knock at the Cabin, is not one of the wholly original narratives that the director is known for concocting, as it’s based on Paul Tremblay‘s less ambiguously titled novel The Cabin at the End of the World, there are enough links between its tale of apocalyptic reckoning and the rest of his filmography that one can easily imagine the story taking place in the same Twilight Zone-esque realm where Shyamalan often reigns supreme.
Set almost entirely at a cabin in the woods, Knock focuses on a family of three — fathers Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) and their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) — whose idyllic summer getaway is interrupted by the ominous arrival of four strangers, all carrying primitive weapons and demanding to be let inside. Turned away, these trespassers — Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint) — force their way into the cabin, taking the family hostage and pleading with them to listen. Though unknown to one another before this day, the four intruders insist, they have all been shown apocalyptic visions by a mysterious higher power that was clear on one point: in order to prevent the end of the world, the family must choose to sacrifice one of their own.
From the supernatural interventions of The Sixth Sense, set in motion by another deadly home invasion, to the anguished contemplation of divine will in Signs — also a confined story of families facing end times — Shyamalan has often centered his stories around extraordinary situations that demand impossible choices of his characters. In this respect, Knock feels quintessentially Shyamalanian, and those familiar with the filmmaker’s vein of spiritual musing in genre cinema will be unsurprised by his disinterest in feinting away from the psychological suspense of this premise. A tragedy of counterposed convictions, giving rise to horrifying physical acts with devastating emotional consequences, Knock is as sincere as any film Shyamalan has made in agonizing over the ambiguity of God’s presence or absence, and the terrible power of belief to absolve us of moral uncertainty.
As the strangers keep checking their watches, it soon becomes clear there’s a ticking clock on the decision they implore Andrew, Eric, and Wen to make. The more hotheaded and vulnerable parent, Andrew is vehemently opposed to the strangers’ argument, pointing out how it looks that they have “the queers tied up” and doubting their claims of prophetic foresight even after the cabin’s TV set begins broadcasting footage of mass earthquakes and tsunamis. (“Keep watching until we see what we were shown,” intones Leonard as disasters start multiplying worldwide, a directive that hints at the role of confirmation bias in their group’s decision to breach the cabin and further amplifies the film’s question of whether they’ve been moved by their beliefs or, rather, controlled.)
The family’s backstory is filled in through expertly deployed flashbacks — the first to an uncomfortable meeting with Andrew’s homophobic parents, who drive for seven hours but stay with them for just 45 minutes, a sign of disapproval that tellingly unsettles Andrew more than Eric. “Always together,” Eric tells him, a show of trust in their love above all else that clarifies the widening differences in their reactions to events at the cabin. Another flashback, to a hate crime Andrew experienced in Boston, deepens our sense of the panicked, slightly wounded looks that he keeps giving Eric, whose far-away expressions betray a different sort of questioning. The chemistry that Aldridge and Groff share, and the naturalism of their unspoken communication throughout the film, is in no small part essential to its emotional coherence and eventually devastating impact.
The other performances, particularly from Bautista and Cui, go a long way toward selling the dilemma at the story’s heart. Towering over his prisoners but pleading with them in a kindly manner that adds credence to his claims of being a second-grade teacher who oversees afterschool programs back home, Leonard is at once an intimidating figure and an endearing one, and his look of melancholic conviction is oddly moving even as it unsettles, while his gentle-giant demeanor — often opposite the savvy young Wen — provides Knock‘s most effective pockets of gallows humor. Cui, for her part, lets us see Wen’s growing uncertainty and fear but smartly tailors her performance to the ones given by Groff and Aldridge, allowing the family’s resistance to the ultimatum they’re presented with to come off as both a necessary survival tactic and a defiantly united front.
As much as Knock aligns with our understanding of Shyamalan the storyteller, it even more strongly reminds us of Shyamalan the craftsman. His previous vacation-from-hell thrillers The Visit (about young siblings unnerved by their grandparents’ odd behavior after dark) and Old (about families who start aging rapidly after they’re stranded on a mysterious beach) unleashed a new era of formal exuberance for the director, with The Visit exploiting the found-footage conceit of a 14-year-old cameraman to heighten its sense of atmospheric disorientation, and Old employing continually spinning dollies and hurtling zooms to convey time funneling by its characters and playing their bodily deterioration as grand-guignol reveals. Knock is similarly filled with canted angles and off-kilter compositions, but its greatest strength — abetted by the rigorous, close-quarters work of cinematographers Jarin Blaschke (The Lighthouse) and Lowell A. Meyer (Thunder Road) — is Shyamalan’s use of extreme close-up to capture the conflicting emotions flitting across his actors’ faces, their juxtaposed expressions of doubt and devotion pushing the film’s philosophical action forward.
Throughout Knock, Shyamalan’s camera assumes the emotional perspective of his characters, using wide and mid-shots to situate them within environments that they search or move through, shifting into close-up to get inside their heads. Later, the camera whips enthusiastically from side to side as Redmond endures a beating, and the flashback sequences glow with a hazy half-light, with certain characters blocked out to clue us into whose memories we’re reliving. Shyamalan still makes his traditional cameo appearance on screen, but Knock at the Cabin is overrun by echoes of his previous films. The medieval weapons, and their use, recalls everything from Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix arming themselves with farm tools in Signs, to Paul Giamatti attempting to kill a bug under the sink in the first scene of Lady in the Water. Both films, like Knock at the Cabin, celebrate Shyamalan’s gift for building suspense through multi-plane storytelling within a single frame, while the location of the cabin itself feels alternately cavernous and constricting in a way that harkens back to the contained, emotionally fraught setpieces of his early films such as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.
From his opening shot, which zeroes in on a small grasshopper hidden in tall grass, Shyamalan revels as ever in Biblical imagery, especially lingering on compositions that evoke the puniness of an individual when viewed from above. It’s worth noting how other insects, like locusts, are traditionally viewed as harbingers of destruction and plague — as subhuman entities, almost — but the grasshopper is associated with a type of nobility, knowledge, and longevity, one that calls attention to its relative size and strength more than humanity. It’s a fitting symbol with which to open Knock, which frames the intruders as looming over their captive family even as it elucidates the ways in which they are powerless to make the only choice that matters.
Wen is first seen collecting grasshoppers inside a jar for a school project, Shyamalan’s masterful focus racks following her eyeline to specific areas of the frame, a camera tilt emphasizing Leonard’s hulking torso during their initial encounter in the woods. The jar itself is repurposed at one point to achieve a split-diopter effect, at another seeming to contain Wen. Such touches register as Shyamalan furthering his visual preoccupation with semi-opaque surfaces (glass, water, TV screens, the camera’s lens itself) that can recast the world as a shimmering mirage of possibilities — a fitting motif for the type of economical yet conceptually ambitious thriller that remains Shyamalan’s specialty.
There’s visceral pleasure to be found in watching a film this formally elegant and well-executed. But Knock also features a profound slipperiness, a sense of the unanswerable that at once complicates and clarifies the nature of the decisions its characters confront. “There’s always a choice,” Andrew and Eric remind their captors, who concede that as the consequences of the family’s continued inaction become brutally apparent. Shyamalan’s skill behind the camera is the only certainty in this cleverly amorphous chamber piece, which evinces the same anxieties that have propelled his storytelling from the start but which thrums with a perhaps never-mightier sense of precision, craft, and confidence.
Knock at the Cabin is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of Universal Pictures.