I have never known what to do with M. Night Shyamalan’s career. You can’t fault the guy for trying to do unique things with the thriller genre. But there are recurring aspects of his filmmaking which have bothered me, and these problems came to a head with the one-two punch of Glass and Old. The writing, acting, and tone in those movies irk me.
On the other hand, Shyamalan has surprised me pleasantly on multiple occasions. Split is really well-shot and holds the tension. The Visit has a few memorable moments. Going back to the first act of his career, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable both hold up well, I think. And Praying with Anger is a fairly accomplished debut.
With this divided conscience on Shyamalan’s films, I went into Knock at the Cabin very trepidatious. The marketing for the film did not help its case in my mind. The trailer read overly performative with its themes and seemed prime for a disappointing third act. There was some talk about how this was the director’s second R rating, which I did not see as a positive given how disastrous his first R-rated film, The Happening, turned out. And, in a sense, this is the closest Shyamalan has come to retrying the The Happening thing.
But there are two major differences between the two films. First, Knock at the Cabin is an adaptation. This is not the first time Shyamalan has adapted from source material, and I can’t say either of the times before were successful (I know there are defenders of Old, though). I would say, though, that I think the structure afforded by the Paul Tremblay novel really helps here (plot-wise, some major points are changed). There is less room here for scenes resembling some of the more meme-worthy moments from The Happening.
Secondly, the actors in the cast of Knock at the Cabin know (for the most part) how to handle this material. I found myself drawn at various points to different performances, even when they occasionally stumble. Compared to Old or The Happening, where the characters don’t read to me like real people, almost the entire ensemble in Cabin successfully sell their individual motivations and emotional arcs. Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge, in particular, do really good work with a script that does not fully know how to handle the nuances of their emotional predicament.
Speaking of which, the script remains the biggest bugaboo I have with Shyamalan. The crediting leads me to believe that Shyamalan added to a previous script from Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, so it is difficult to know exactly what parts Shyamalan himself had a hand in. But his tendencies are there. Elements of the script that don’t take place directly in the eponymous cabin either serve as shorthand for character work or resemble certain aspects of The Happening in its expository apocalyptic bits.
Much of this is clunky, but I found myself shrugging through all of the short-cuts the script takes. Even when the third act turns to overtly putting the themes of the film in the characters’ mouths, I only soured slightly. The central family drama of the plot is compelling and entertaining enough that the grander themes that Shyamalan bungles are forgivable. That said, the final 15 minutes of this are comparatively weak (except for the penultimate shot, which I found a bit on-the-nose but ultimately a satisfying concluding thought).
On a final note, the film is shot really well. Shyamalan puts more personality into his camerawork than he does into his characters.
Knock at the Cabin: B-
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)