'Knock at the Cabin' Review: Sometimes a Decision Can Be the End of the World

Four Star Rating: *** 
Cast: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, Michael Sherman
Based on: The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul G. Tremblay
Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke, Lowell A. Meyer
Editor: Noemi Katharina Preiswerk
Music: Herdis Stefansdottir
Production Company: Blinding Edge Pictures, FilmNation Entertainment, Wishmore Entertainment
Distribution Company: Universal Pictures
Genre: Horror, Drama, Mystery
Rated: 14A (Ontario)/ R (United States) - Violence, Frightening Scenes, Coarse Language, Mature Subject Matter
Release Date: February 3, 2023
Runtime: 100 minutes

M. Night Shyamalan has built a reputation for his twist endings, but while some were iconic, his popularity and success has more to do with the atmosphere and tension erupting from the disturbing unknown. His best works have leads that must make crucial decisions when caught in a bizarre situation with circumstances that force them to question what is reality. Sure, his pictures often then have a stunning twist to shock the audience, but his mastery is plunging us into the life of a character trying to piece together the truth while life altering decisions hang over them.

One aspect not often credited to Shyamalan is the terrific performance he brings out in his actors to really raise the emotion and stakes. Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy and  James McAvoy are some of the actors that has career best or breakout performances in Shyamalan movies. It is the performances that connect us into the often supernatural situations.

Our lives aren't usually Shyamalan movies where we confront a kid who claims to see dead people or a alien invasion is being threatened, but we are often forced to make decisions every day without knowing the future or the impact. The unknown may not be supernatural in our lives, but it constantly exists, and this is a major reason we connect with the best of Shyamalan's pictures. We can relate to being forced to make a major decision with the unknown haunting us, and the performances create characters we can see ourselves in.

Knock at the Cabin thrives on being about a forced decision with the haunting unknown lingering over that choice. Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) were planning to have a relaxing vacation at a remote cottage with their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), but plans are drastically changed when they are confronted by four strangers with a rather horrific demand. The strangers claim they each had visions of the world's end, and the only way to stop it is for the couple and their daughter to choose who in their family will be sacrificed and then, the family members must also do the horrific deed.

Dave Bautista plays the leader of the four strangers in Leonard, who is a second grade teacher. He is introduced in a gentle scene where he helps Wen catch grasshoppers, but even in that moment we can sense something is tormenting him. Bautista has grown as a nuanced and diverse actor, and he is incredible here as the soft-spoken and calm leader. He knows what he is asking is insane, but he also deeply believes that without the sacrifice that all humanity will end. 

Bautista expertly conveys a heart-broken and anguished man with every line that he delivers. He somehow projects great empathy and compassion, despite requesting the act of murder to a loved one. It is Bautista's delivery that makes the picture more eerie and disturbing, because he gets no pleasure from taking this family hostage, but truly believes it is the only way to save humanity. Bautista makes us believe that Leonard is a compassionate and kind man, despite the actions he makes, which makes everything more unsettling and scary.

Nikki Amuka-Bird plays Sabrina who comes off as a nurturing and warm presence that uses her years of experience as a registered nurse to care for one of the injured family members, and it is clear she is just as shaken by what she feels must be done. Abby Quinn plays Adrianna as a warm and friendly figure who loves hospitality and is kind to Wen, but also torn apart by what the vision are commanding her to do. Only Redmond played by Rupert Grint comes off as hostile and fits into the more traditional home invader role. 

Eric and Andrew at first believe they are being targeted for being a same sex married coupled with an adopted daughter. It allows both performers to project a mix of not only fear and confusion, but hot anger towards the strangers. But the strangers plead that they didn't know who was in the cabin, but just that this was the place they were led. One of the movie's missteps though is how far the couple sticks to the being targeted stance when it no longer makes sense with what unfolds, because it is clear that the stranger truly believe in their visions, even if they could be deluded and wrong. The most intriguing aspect of the movie is leaving the viewers to unpack if the strangers are right, especially since the couple is told if they don't do the sacrifice,  that decisions will make them the only survivors who are them left to roam a desolated world.

One of the big questions is looking at why the fate of the world rides on the decision made by the couple. It explores how often they needed to make a decision to love each other and continue devoting themselves to their relationship. Obviously, every couple ever has had to make a decision to be together and remain with each other. The picture shows several flashbacks where they've been confronted with the challenge of making that choice more often due to being a same sex couple. They had to continue to decide to remain with each other despite rejection from family, abuse from strangers, and judgement of deciding to adopt a girl. The flashback structure helps add weight to their decision, and show us the challenges they'd endured up until this fateful moment. It also demonstrates they deciding if they save a world that often has been opposed to them.

Groff and Aldridge has a strong chemistry that makes us believe they would go through fire for each other. They have an equally believable love with Cui. Cui is radiant in her first big screen role, and provides both a precocious and cute child but also one who conveys being gripped by fear and confusion. Wen has a complicated relationship with Leonard as she both has affection and fear for him, and both Cui and Bautista expertly elevate their connection in their few gentle scenes together.

Shyamalan also crafts a range of emotions with how he frames and creates his scenes. The forest looks inviting and tranquil at the beginning with the lush trees and wildlife allowing the audience to indulge in the colours and beauty. But as the strangers arrive and tension mounts, the forest is now presented in a foreboding and isolating way as the dream vacation has now become a nightmare hostage situation. He also shoots the calm and gentle Bautista in a way that despite his calming delivery comes off as intimidating and threatening. We are thrown in a mix of conflicting emotions, which elevates the themes and story.

The picture is an adaptation of author Paul G, Tremblay's novel The Cabin at the End of the World, and the screenplay by Steve Desmond, Michael Sherman and Shyamalan deviates from some major plot points, which also leads to some different themes and ideas. It still presents the challenge of would one sacrifice their family for humanity, and in this case, would one sacrifice when they already felt the world was against them? The picture does struggle with some typical Shyamalan challenges with dialogue that feels a bit didactic, a need to spell things out, and character making choices for the sake of progressing the plot. The screenplay may have issues, but the performances and unsettling direction keeps it engaging.

To wrap this up by bringing up Bautista one more time, his performance brings so much nuance and layers to a movie that may not have it without him. If I had any faith in the Academy willing to recognize genre fare, I'd say Bautista is a strong candidate for a nomination next year, but due to movie being horror it is unlikely. But if he keeps up these type of deep emotional and authentic performances then that Oscar recognition will be inevitable.