[Editor’s note: The following story contains spoilers for “Knock at the Cabin.”]
This past weekend saw the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Knock at the Cabin,” a thriller that sees the master of twists taking on Paul G. Tremblay’s novel “The Cabin at the End of the World” and put his own, ahem, twist on it (mostly, through making some serious changes to the story’s final act).
IndieWire executive editor and VP of editorial strategy Eric Kohn and executive editor, film Kate Erbland each saw the film in recent days, and both walked away with very different feelings on how Shyamalan’s alterations helped or hindered the box office hit.
ERIC KOHN: For years — decades now — M. Night Shyamalan’s movies have mostly been known for their twists, but in many cases, this tendency is a bit of a red herring. Shyamalan excels as a director of quiet despair and slow-burn suspense in small moments; with the exception of the repeat viewings encouraged by “I see dead people,” the big picture rarely adds up to anything as satisfying as the journey leading up to it. So it goes with “Knock at the Cabin,” an unnerving chamber piece that finds two men and their adopted daughter at the mercy of a home invasion. It has some tense set pieces, beautiful camera work, and a terrific set of tense performances.
But the culmination of that skill is one big copout.
Once the premise sets in, the movie just grinds through a series of developments based on the expectations it establishes early on: The attackers (played with equal parts sensitivity and intimidation by Dave Bautista, Abby Quinn, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Rupert Grint) claim the world will end unless one member of the family murders another one; each time they refuse, one of their captors will be murdered by the rest.
Spoiler alert, part one: Their fears are not unfounded! With each passing refusal and subsequent execution, the global catastrophes unfold, again and again, as cheesy news broadcasts detail global atrocities unfolding as a result of the family’s continuing unwillingness to do the awful thing. The final reveal of the movie (spoiler alert, part two!) wouldn’t feel out of place in the “Left Behind” franchise: The reluctant aggressors are actually the four horsemen of the apocalypse, struck by visions of end times so awful that Jonathan Groff convinces Ben Aldridge to shoot him dead.
Now, this doesn’t surprise nearly as much as the way that Shyamalan departs from the source material. “Knock at the Cabin” draws from Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” and like his previous undertaking “Old,” the filmmaker has taken plenty of creative liberties; in this case, he’s actually brightened up the material. In the book, innocent young Wen actually dies, and in the aftermath of that tragedy the two men decide they’d rather forge the apocalypse together than prevent it by staying apart forever. That’s a powerful narrative conceit that attests to the contradictory impulses of personal and public responsibility. By depriving the story of that outcome, Shyamalan stymies its emotional sophistication for an easier sentimental resolution.
Like a lot of critics, I have often that Shyamalan’s formidable directing chops would benefit from a willingness to let someone else do the writing for him, but “Knock at the Cabin” hints that may be impossible for him — he’d rather scribble over someone else’s work than allow it to improve his own. I know 2023 is young, but this has to register as one of the year’s most frustrating American movies. We know the potential of the material that started on the page and how much Shyamalan has squandered it.
KATE ERBLAND: Perhaps that tweaked title should have given us a hint at what Shyamalan has in store for us: Tremblay’s eponymous cabin is the one “at the end of the world,” Shyamalan’s is just, well, “a cabin.” No world-ending here! And yet, while you balk at the changes Shyamalan and his co-writers, Steve Newman and Michael Sherman make to the story — again, no dead Wen, but a very dead Eric and a somehow still thriving world — I didn’t hate them. It’s weirdly hopeful, practically winsome by Shyamalan’s standards.
That may sound silly, but the bleakness of Tremblay’s novel doesn’t really appeal to me these days. I think we’ve all seen enough films — and, hell, lived through enough of her own maybe-end-times — to not feel much when newscasts blast horrible news item after horrible news item each day. At a certain point, everything looks like a sign of the apocalypse.
But buried in Shyamalan and company’s big twist (yes, it’s funny that the big! twist! in this particular Shyamalan film is really just “oh, he altered the source material”) there’s a dark idea that “Knock at the Cabin” tries to make both inspiring and horrific: what if Wen, Andrew, and Eric aren’t the only family who has ever been taunted with this awful ask? What if this happens all the time, everywhere, with different horsemen and different innocent families?
That’s a compelling way to consider our own nightmarish, news-obsessed world, and one I do wish Shyamalan explored more deeply. Still, it gave me food for thought even as the film ends on a bit (just a bit!) of happy note. This story isn’t over, just this tiny part of it is. The choice? Just one of many. Salvation? Temporary.
But the other side of the “hey, let’s not kill the kid, but let’s definitely kill one of the husbands” coin is that it to does seem to only pump up the streak of homophobia that runs through the film. Andrew and Eric worry that they’ve been targeted because of their orientation — and a subplot about whether or not one of their captors is actually a violent criminal who previously attacked Andrew; a plot that Shyamalan goes out of his way to confirm is true, twice — and killing one of them off so that everyone else might live, well, that feels pretty uncomfortable through that lens. What did you think of that element?
KOHN: I think that Shyamalan gets wet feet around the very issue he’s supposedly grappling with here — namely, the aforementioned homophobia. On the one hand, it’s commendable to see a major studio release grappling with the complexities facing same-sex couples, especially in the context of a story about religious extremism (or, I guess, religious extremism that turns out to be not so extreme).
Shyamalan hints at homophobia but hesitates to name it. In the flashback, the homophobe in question doesn’t drop the “F” word at the bar; he just tells them to quiet down, then lashes out. It struck me as an extension of the overall reticence that Shyamalan faces with his characters’ sexual identity. I mean, they don’t even kiss! The movie provides an easy out to viewers who might sympathize with the villain in question so they don’t have to question their own nasty biases.
Yeah, I know. Homophobia’s a bummer. Who wants to watch a movie about that? But part of the problem with this brand of commercial storytelling is that backs down from digging into the potent topics that could make it so much more substantial — and ultimately more satisfying. As for this idea that the downbeat nature of the source material isn’t so appealing these days, what can I say? I adore popular culture willing to whistle in the dark.
In the pantheon of queer apocalyptic sagas, I much prefer Gregg Araki’s “Kaboom,” which takes its cues from “Dr. Strangelove” in its willingness to imagine the end of the world with a goofy grin. Tremblay’s book isn’t satire, but its ending displays a willingness to be bleak and inspiring at the same time, which is the sort of contradictory experience you can only get at the movies.
Still, I’ll grant you this: I love that Shyamalan can make eccentric, contained movies like this on a budget and blast them out to millions of viewers. “Knock at the Cabin” stands out from so many blockbuster story arcs because there isn’t really a villain; everyone’s intentions are essentially sincere.
Which brings us to Dave Bautista. I was fascinated by the way his performance was so earnest and tragic. I wanted a bit more backstory to his situation — why a second-grade teacher who (by the actor’s own admission) looks like someone preordained to beat people up wound up filled with such profound sorrow. He’s the greatest triumph of this movie’s existence: It’s the first full-throated case for an actor who deserved to be the centerpiece of many movies to come.
By that same token, I didn’t really buy the performances by his fellow horsemen (and women). Shyamalan’s cast is all over the place, with performances that oscillate from shrill to heartfelt. Nobody seems totally sure what kind of tone they should be going for. Bautista just seems to be doing his own thing and getting away with it. Where did you fall on all of this?
ERBLAND: I agree that Bautista is phenomenal here — he’s a rising star who has made it clear that he wants to be an actor, not a movie star, and the work backs that up. Hell, the guy is even heartbreaking in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, no small feat, so it makes total sense that he’d take his unique brand of vulnerability to new ends in this much darker film.
It’s also a tricky role when considered alongside the rest of his “horsemen” — most of which you don’t seem to like too much in their roles, though I’ve got less of a problem with these performances, because they are meant to hinge on the possibility that these people are not who they say they are.
Which does bring me to my main beef with the film: I wish it didn’t so clearly answer so many questions. Yes, the horsemen are right. Yes, Rupert Grint’s character was the dude who beat up Andrew all those years ago. Yes, Adriane has a kid. Yes, Sabrina is a nurse! Some of the film’s central queries do need to be answered — like, hey, is the apocalypse really coming? — but the desire to answer even the most minor of quibbles dilutes the raw power of that central reveal.
I wish Shyamalan trusted his audience enough to walk out of the theater and noodle on some of those answers for themselves. That’s a much more satisfying twist on the film, particularly in the face of the other big swings the filmmaker takes when adjusting the material to his liking.
In short: I wanted to know less. What about you?
KOHN: I think you hit on the issue that Shyamalan grapples with in so many of his movies: He’s a subtle sheep in maximalist clothing. His movies are deep, challenging moral parables but they tend to ask their biggest questions on the surface. “Knock at the Cabin” is one of the worst offenders in that regard.
In the final third, you have characters literally quoting scripture to explain the events at hand, when leaving those circumstances unexplained would be fundamentally creepier (plus, the internet would figure out the Biblical context just fine, thanks). I thought it was weird how Shyamalan established a pattern to the events in such a transparent fashion that despite that one tense escape effort, the movie was so predictable early on.
But I have to give it to Shyamalan for his final climactic scene. I’ll never hear “Boogie Shoes” by KC & The Sunshine Band the same way again. Though I wish the plot had ended differently, I loved the way the movie leaves us with a wordless exchange between devastated characters united by the music that reminds them of the person they’ve lost. That’s the power of great art — it transports us through pure feeling to make a point that the limits of language can’t do nearly as well.
As Shyamalan continues to crank these movies out, I hope he doubles down on these moments above all.
“Knock at the Cabin” is now in theaters.