Sometime in the late 2000s, M. Night Shyamalan forgot all about empathy. His biggest films, the ones that are considered horror-thriller masterpieces, like The Sixth Sense and Signs—and, yes, even an early work as mistakenly maligned as The Village—exude empathy at almost every turn. These are films that understand the plights of their characters, actively rooting for them while keeping the chilly dread of their respective atmospheres intact. Their heart is what makes them so striking.
But as Shyamalan’s star continued to rise, so did the demand for more of his unique brand of twisty horror. The public narrative surrounding his films became less about their emotional merit, and far more about whether his latest twist ending was better or worse than the last. As a result, the director got in his own way. He worked harder to kowtow to audiences and what they thought they wanted, while moving further away from the distinct talent that made him a household name. The initial results were imitations of his own previous works, followed by all-out, unfeeling duds and cheap tricks to weave new films into the world of his older, more inspired productions. Who can forget Mental Illness: The Movie?
How thrilling, then, that his latest is an undeniable return to form. Knock at the Cabin, in theaters Friday, is Shyamalan’s most empathetic and grounded work in almost two decades. Adapted from Paul Tremblay’s acclaimed 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World, the film finds Shyamalan working in peak condition, allowing the solid source material to keep his inclination to color too far outside the lines at bay. The result is a remarkably taut thriller that’s dripping in dread, refusing to waste a single second of its runtime for audience reprieve.
Knock at the Cabin opens with a shot of the bright and precocious Wen (Kristen Cui), sitting outside of her family’s rented cabin as she collects grasshoppers to study. A peek at Wen’s logbook reveals that she is adept at understanding emotional patterns in both humans and insects, despite being just eight years old. When Wen notices a large, imposing man walking toward her, your stomach can’t help but plummet a mile. The man introduces himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista) and speaks with Wen for a few minutes, to get the two acquainted better. But Wen senses something is deeply wrong when Leonard tells her that he—and his three quickly approaching friends carrying almost-medieval makeshift weapons—has come to her with a very important task.
Wen flees into the cabin, warning her two fathers, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), as best she can while the strangers approach their door. The film’s initial 15 minutes are an intensely nauseating ride through all of our darkest fears and worst anxieties, made all the more potent by seeing the family rush to lock the doors, shut the windows, and protect their daughter. The four strangers linger outside the cabin, calmly explaining to them that they do not intend to hurt the family, but that they have been sent there for a reason. From now on, no one can be allowed to leave the premises.
The intruders manage to subdue and tie up the family, as Leonard explains the reason for their trespassing. He—along with his cohorts Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Ardiane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint)—has seen detailed visions of the end of the world. The oceans will rise, a plague will inflict humanity, the sky will fall, and eternal darkness will descend. The only way to halt the apocalypse is by Eric, Andrew, and Wen choosing one of their own family to sacrifice.
If you’ve got blood pressure medication, I suggest making sure that you’re dosed before you sit down in the theater. Shyamalan’s script, reworked from an early draft from co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, does an impressive job of ratcheting up the stress and letting it drop back down again during expository sequences without losing its momentum. It also deftly toys with the believability of the intruders. Surely, any rational person wouldn’t believe their nonsense. But it’s clear that despite the implausibility of their gospel, they mean every word.
The group keeps their promise not to kill any one of the family’s party themselves, but forces them to start making a choice: Will they make a sacrifice, or condemn humanity to a plague? The latter option has its own consequences, as Leonard shows them on the cabin’s satellite television. But when Andrew makes a possible connection between the family and their captors, it sows doubt among both groups and ignites a rage inside the two restrained parents.
Knock at the Cabin’s powerfully effective emotional throughline comes courtesy of its central storyline. The film digs into the fear and anxiety that queer people face daily, having to make unending microscopic assessments of our safety. Those gut checks eventually become second nature; most of the time, they are so infinitesimal that we don’t realize they’re happening. But that doesn’t make them any less exhausting.
Shyamalan shines a light on the results of this process without becoming maudlin. He understands that the explosive rage that queer people hold inside after spending their lives with a target on their backs is also what makes us capable of loving so wholeheartedly. Knowing that correlation is key to Knock at the Cabin’s gut punches. Andrew and Eric can’t fathom a loss when they’ve fought their whole life for happiness, safety, and family. Now, they’re faced with an impossible decision, and must weigh their undying love with a dubious moral quandary presented by complete strangers.
Groff, and particularly Ben Aldridge, bear that weight masterfully. Aldridge, fresh off a shattering turn in last year’s Spoiler Alert, takes on a similar challenge to that film’s heavy emotionality. Every moment of his uncompromising Andrew is starkly believable. And as Wen, Cui becomes Knock at the Cabin’s beating heart. To qualify her performance would almost be a disservice to it, but Cui is nothing short of outstanding in her feature film debut.
But it’s Bautista who shows up to once again prove himself a surprise. As Leonard, Bautista is just phenomenal—funny, intimidating, and treacherous all at the same time. He knows just how to emit the kind of terror that’s so much sickening fun to revel in, making him a perfect foil to Groff and Aldridge.
“Detailing what happens at that ending—and whether or not the director is able to leave behind his most infamous twisty trope—wouldn’t be fair to his best work in years.”
Occasionally, Shyamalan starts to get in his own way, veering on overkill with his favorite directorial standbys. Uniquely framed shots become less special the more they’re repeated, and his penchant for close-ups almost renders the anxiety of the tight framing ineffective. But the rails of this ride never start to spark, and Shyamalan remains focused all the way through to the end. Detailing what happens at that ending—and whether or not the director is able to leave behind his most infamous twisty trope—wouldn’t be fair to his best work in years. But the lack of hushed disappointment of audience members exiting the theater should be enough to suggest that Shyamalan managed to tighten the reins. Even fans of Tremblay’s novel will be surprised by the director’s handling of such a bleak story.
Knock at the Cabin wears its inspirations on its sleeve, with sequences that recall fantastic horror-thrillers of years past. At times, you could even make a game out of it. There’s The Mist! Oh, and Funny Games. Look, it’s Mother! and The Strangers! But the movie never comes off like mimicry. Instead, it feels classically pulp, like it’s adapted from an old-fashioned novela that scared the wits out of readers back in the 1930s. Yet, it’s distinctly modern, with allegorical messaging that certainly seems like a sign of the times.
Shyamalan’s latest longs to find meaning in tragedy on both a global and intensely personal scale. After all, the two are often interlinked. Humanity has spent the last three years choosing whether or not to believe the warnings given to us. We’ve learned that our most minuscule choices have the potential for a far wider, deleterious impact. Knock at the Cabin recognizes that all humans are capable of intense violence and true good—as well as everything in between. But as the intruders say over and over to Andrew, Eric, and Wen: These are choices we cannot make alone.