Knock at the Cabin (directed by M. Night Shyamalan) is a surprisingly engaging psychological thriller with strong performances that compensate for the film’s outlandish premise. The cast is a welcome mix of popular and emerging actors, some of whom take their acting skills to new heights. While the film excels in capturing modern day anxieties, its messaging is noticeably underdeveloped and prone to being mischaracterised.
The story centres on a gay couple, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their adopted child, Wen (Kristen Cui). Their holiday in the countryside is violently interrupted when a group of doomsdayers break into their cabin and hold them hostage. The group consists of Leonard (Dave Bautista), a mild-mannered school teacher; Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a nurse; Adriane (Abby Quinn), a line cook; and Redmond (Rupert Grint), a shifty and agitated accomplice. The film is a psychological thrill ride, with a narrative that unfolds in a way that prevents viewers from guesswork.
The intruders attempt, albeit shoddily, to sway the family into believing that there is an approaching apocalypse and that the couple must make an “impossible” choice to avert it. During the break-in (which occurs in the first act), Shyamalan effectively evokes the sense of panic and dread experienced by the protagonists; the banging on the door, the breaking of windows, alongside the protagonists’ frantic back and forth with the persistent intruders gives off the impression that we are witnessing an innocent family being targeted by a relentless criminal gang. However, in spite of the intensity of this scene, we are quickly encouraged to view the intruders in a different light. Such a shift in perspective happens when they attempt to appeal to the family’s commonality. Leonard, Sabrina and Adriane introduce themselves, revealing their respective occupations and general interests. While I would not expect any sane protagonist to find this approach calming given the recent break in, the direction of this scene – with Redmond sneering at his accomplices’ attempt to relate to their captives – hints that these doomsdayers are not a calculating bunch, but in fact working things out as they go along.
Whether or not the doomsdayers are acting in accordance to a plan is one of the key questions on the couple’s mind, particularly on Andrew’s, whose background as an attorney makes him especially adept at recognising deceit. The doomsdayers’ primary source of proof are news reports, which are shown to the captured couple at different intervals. As is revealed to the family at the start, the longer they delay in cooperating, the more people will die.
As one would expect from a thriller, things continue to escalate. The couple refuse to make the choice on multiple occasions. When their first chance passes, they are shown a news report of a deadly tsunami. When their second chance passes, they are shown a report of a developing viral outbreak. Andrew is quick to allege that the doomsdayers must have gotten wind of these reports before the break in, and that his and Eric’s refusal to cooperate has nothing to do with the recent tragedies. Interestingly, it is not the authenticity of the reports that is questioned, but the timing. If it is just trickery (which I will neither confirm nor deny), then the doomsdayers had a hold on the couple from the very beginning.
As time goes on, Andrew becomes even more vocal, yet his steadfastness is marred by Eric supposedly witnessing an apparition. The vision isn’t given any further explanation, but it serves to corroborate the idea that the intruders are telling the truth. There is nothing to suggest that this apparition is of someone morally and ethically good, though.
What I found to be remarkably effective in this film is the use of camerawork and the casting of Bautista. Shyamalan jump starts the plot with an unsettling opening scene, involving Leonard approaching Wen and helping her capture grasshoppers. He speaks in a gentle, polite and friendly tone, treading carefully to avoid scaring her. This soothing delivery is juxtaposed with claustrophobic camera framing. We are shown close-ups of the characters faces, skewed at a noticeable angle and taking up most of the frame. The camerawork is not only noteworthy for generating tension; it also has textual significance – by inducing a feeling of “suffocation”, the film suggests that the two characters are trapped in an unescapable situation. Such a reading actually makes sense once one has viewed the film in its entirety.
Knock at the Cabin excels in eliciting a variety of emotions and sustaining an atmosphere of mystery. The acting is top-tier all around, and even surprised me in cases. Despite its strengths, its resolution indicates a lack of care towards its own ideals. There is a point when Bautista’s character suggests that the love that Eric and Andrew share is one of purity. If Shyamalan had focused instead on this idea, we could have had a much more cathartic story that gave our protagonists greater agency and an ending they deserve.
Viewed at Cinemax, Europa SC, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia Written by Ashley Roohizadegan