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‘Knock at the Cabin’ Review: M. Night Shyamalan Gets Biblical in Tense but Torturous Apocalyptic Thriller



Most of us can agree the world is in a perilous state, with natural disasters multiplying, pernicious new viruses continually emerging, the planet steadily overheating, and wars raging in constant rotation. But yeesh, M. Night Shyamalan needs to lighten up. Or if he’s really going to explore his despair over the fate of humanity, at least do it in a more compelling vehicle than the numbingly self-serious. Knock at the Cabin. And don’t patronize the gays by telling us only the purity of a double-dad family’s love can save mankind. Girl, please.

The film was adapted from Paul Tremblay’s well-received 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the Worldand then retooled by Shyamalan from a script by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, cited by both the Black List and GLAAD among the best unproduced screenplays of 2019. But something went wrong in the execution — and yes, there are a handful of those in this unpleasant thriller, even if none of them packs much surprise.

Knock at the Cabin

The Bottom Line

Doom and doomer.

Release date: Friday, Feb. 3
Cast: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenwriters: M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, Michael Sherman, based on the book The Cabin at the End of the Worldby Paul Tremblay

Rated R, 1 hour 40 minutes

Gay couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) are vacationing at a remote woodlands cabin with their adopted 7-year-old Chinese American daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui). She’s catching grasshoppers in a glass jar that screams “Symbolism!” when she’s approached by a scary hulk named Leonard (Dave Bautista), who turns out to be a gentle soul. At least until he tells Wen that he needs to speak to her dads about a matter of the gravest importance. He’s followed close behind by three associates, all of them carrying barbaric-looking weapons fashioned out of gardening tools.

Alerted by Wen to their approach, Eric and especially Andrew put up a violent fight before the intruders smashed their way inside. The phone lines have been cut and there is no cell reception in the area, which rules out calling the cops. Soon, Leonard and his crew have the two fathers tied to chairs while their daughter whimpers in fear.

The WTF news they have come to impart is that the cabin’s occupants must choose a member of their family to die by the hands of the remaining two, or the world will end in the next 24 hours.

As if to validate the wild Judgment Day prophecy that allegedly appeared to the four strangers from different parts of the country in shared visions, Leonard insists they introduce themselves. He’s a mild-mannered second grade teacher and part-time bartender, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a post-op nurse, Adriane (Abby Quinn) is a short-order cook and hot-tempered ex-con Redmond (Rupert Grint ) works for the gas company.

Eric later figures out they’re the four horsemen of the apocalypse, representing the full spectrum of humanity — specifically guidance, healing, nurturing and malice. Whoa, heady stuff.

Except it’s not. The ticking-clock thriller attempts to pump up the ominous mood from the outset with Icelandic composer Herdis Stefánsdóttir’s high-dudgeon score and lots of unsettlingly off-kilter angles from DPs Lowell A. Meyer and Jarin Blaschke. The movie is certainly not lacking in tension or visual style.

But the central “what would you do?” dilemma never gains any moral complexity because the script does not allow the saintly family unit even to consider which of them should be sacrificed. Mostly, they just try in vain to either uncover the strangers’ macabre conspiracy or persuade them that they’re victims of a mind-control experiment.

Human rights lawyer Andrew thinks it’s all some kind of homophobic torture, a theory fortified when he becomes convinced that Redmond is the man who assaulted him in a hate crime years earlier, prompting him to acquire those impressive fighting skills. Eric is concussed from a bash on the head and perhaps might be more susceptible to the intruders’ dire warnings, but his love for his family remains unquestionable. And no one ever asks Wen which of her dads she could spare.

An unplanned tragedy that threw everyone for a loop in Tremblay’s novel has been dropped. That means it all proceeds with plodding inevitability as each firm no from the family prompts one of the strangers to offer themselves up. They meet grisly ends courtesy of those garden tools, while intoning: “A part of humanity has been judged.”

Leonard then turns on the TV news after each death, watching as a tsunami wipes out the Pacific Northwest, a virus that’s particularly deadly for children spreads like wildfire and planes start randomly plummeting out of the sky, all of which appeared in his visions.

You keep waiting for a trademark Shyamalan twist, but Knock at the Cabin is a joylessly literal movie that can’t even milk gallows humor from the uncomfortable placement of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes.”

Flashbacks to Eric and Andrew’s life together before the unfortunate vacation — a grim meeting with Eric’s intolerant parents; that assault, which occurred while they were in a bar, weighing each other’s fitness for parenthood; a visit to the adoption center in China, where Andrew must pose as Eric’s brother-in-law — reveal the homophobia from which they’ve cocooned themselves.

Sadly, it also reveals them to be earnest to a fault and entirely sexless. The film deserves credit for casting two out gay actors in the roles, but you wonder if this couple has ever done more than hold hands.

The characters are so lacking in dimension that there’s little the actors can do with them; only Aldridge and Bautista make much of an impression. The bigger problem is that the movie leaves itself nowhere to go but deeper into biblical doom and gloom, with an unwavering sense of purpose that highlights Shyamalan’s able craftsmanship but also exposes the pointlessness of this claustrophobic exercise.

A part of the dismal February release slate has been judged.

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