It starts with a young girl catching grasshoppers outside a cabin in the woods. Then a man approaches. He’s a big man, as thick as a tree and with tattoos covering practically every inch of skin, but his voice is that of a kitten. He helps the girl catch grasshoppers. They play a game where they pull petals from a flower and ask questions. And then the man apologizes for what he’s about to do. She’s scared; she’s just not sure why.
She is Wen (Kristen Cui), the adopted daughter of Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and he is Leonard (Dave Bautista), a man who has come to this particular cabin to finish a very important task. The scene, written by M. Night Shyamalan (who also directs), Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman, and shot by Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer, has the feeling of 1931’s Frankenstein, the one where the monster stumbles upon a little girl throwing flowers into a lake. In that movie, the monster wasn’t smart enough to know what he was doing. Here, the monster knows exactly what’s at stake.
Leonard is joined by three others: Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Ardiane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint). Each carries a blunt object that looks like a medieval weapon designed by a 7-year-old. Menacing but probably not as effective as a baseball bat with a nail in it.
Not that these weapons need to be effective; they just need to look the part. The four are not here to kill Wen, Eric, and Andrew—they don’t even want to hurt them. But they do need them to do a very specific something, and a little intimidation might be the best way to do it.
Based on the book The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, Knock at the Cabin is a home invasion horror story that never really gets scary and a love story where the love is told more than it’s shown. The tone is part of the problem. Shyamalan and company awkwardly insert levity, humor, and one KC & the Sunshine Band song in an attempt to relieve tension. It seems to work against the movie more than anything else.
Then there are the flashbacks to Eric and Andrew’s backstory—bits of memory—designed to pull viewers out of the hostage situation at the cabin and fill in character details: Eric’s relationship with religion and Andrew’s dismissive skepticism; their history of being targeted as a gay couple; the day they adopted Wen; and so on. These moments add a little, sure, but they seem to exist primarily to move the story outside the cabin.
What Knock at the Cabin has going for it is conviction. The camera anchors the audience to the characters, mostly through direct address and in one fight scene where the camera is placed behind a character, swaying back and forth along with him. It’s as if the audience is also being pummeled. Ditto for the dialogue scenes, where the actors talk directly to the camera as if they want to reach through the lens and shake the audience by the shoulders.
But for what ultimate goal, you got me. The metaphor seems plain enough—it’s not even a metaphor, really—but it also doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. Knock at the Cabin wants you to understand, to come to some conclusion about what’s happening on the screen and maybe in the world, but what that is, I’m not so sure.
Knock at the Cabin (2023)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, Michael Sherman
Based on the book by Paul Tremblay
Produced by Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan, M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Kristen Cui, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Dave Bautista, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint, Abby Quinn
Universal Pictures, Rated R, Running time 100 minutes, Opens Feb. 3, 2023.
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