By Noah Gittell
The first great thing about “Knock at the Cabin”, the fifteenth film from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, is how it immediately gets down to business. No sooner do we meet a young family of three on vacation in the woods than they are confronted by four armed assailants, who tie them up and give them the news: They must willingly sacrifice one of themselves to prevent an apocalypse. The smart move by Shyamalan is not to waste any time with exposition. We don’t see the family in their life back home. We don’t follow them on their road trip to the cabin. We get a few strategic flashbacks over the course of the film to contextualize their decisions, but that’s it. It gets right to the good stuff.
Although it derives its plot from the conventions of home invasion horror, “Knock at the Cabin” is more of an old-fashioned popcorn flick, a smart, satisfying thriller with its finger on the pulse of America today. The family is composed of two fathers, Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff), and their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). Their captives are a disparate group led by Leonard (Dave Bautista), a grade-school teacher who received a vision telling him of his gnarly duties, and what the consequences are of his inaction. The others in his group received the same vision. Of note: They found each other on a message board, the kind where QAnon believers congregate and reinforce their delusions.
It’s a conflict drawn with clarity and insight into our modern world. There’s a 21st-century nontraditional family on one side and a mob of strangers willing to commit horrific deeds in the name of God on the other. A weaker film would simply bounce these competing political instincts off each other before culminating in a burst of nihilistic violence, but Shyamalan and his actors are after something more complex, more philosophical, and perhaps even more spiritual.
Andrew, a nonbeliever who believes he is simply being targeted for his sexual identity, works to poke holes in his captives’ sermons, Eric’s faith-based upbringing makes him unable to simply shake off the possibility they are telling the truth. Both actors are terrific; Aldridge reveals shades of hurt beneath his righteous defense of his family, while Groff (the original King George in “Hamilton”) conveys the internal conflict between the secular worldview he has nurtured as an adult, and the nagging feeling in his heart he has spent years trying to suppress.
The revelation here, however, is Bautista, who has quietly but steadily built a very different resume than you might expect from a wrestler-turned-actor. He turned heads in a small role in “Blade Runner 2049” and stuck out in the ensemble “Glass Onion”, but this is his most assured performance to date. A gentle schoolteacher and a potential murderer, Leonard’s contradictions hold the film’s tensions. Is he a divine agent or a deranged lunatic? Bautista acts both realities at once, ensuring the viewer can never get too comfortable with their own idea of what’s really going on. It’s a near-magical performance. Often shot in extreme close-up by Shyamalan, the actor has nowhere to hide as he navigates the mysteries of the story and the complexities of the human condition.
A clever concept and committed performances are the building blocks of a good genre film, but the secret weapon here is Shyamalan’s filmmaking abilities, which haven’t deteriorated in the slightest over the course of his long and winding career. The director who earned comparisons to Spielberg with “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs” has in recent years embraced stories in confined spaces like “The Visit” or “Old”. The limitations seem to help Shyamalan focus, and in “Knock at the Cabin”, every choice, from the blocking to the camera movements, feels imbued with purpose. Each shot advances the story, creating a sustained tension that, from its bang-bang opening to the haunting denouement, never lets us go.
It’s what Roger Ebert used to call a Bruised Forearm movie, because you and your guest are likely to spend the whole film grabbing each other’s arms and walking out both battered and happy. Maybe it’s an antiquated term, since these days modest genre flicks usually go straight to a streaming service, where viewers can sit on opposite ends of a couch and spare their forearms the trauma. Kudos to Mr. Shyamalan, one of the few filmmakers making intelligent thrillers that are worth both the price of admission and a few burst blood vessels.