‘Knock at the Cabin’ Review: Masterfully Made, But Forgettable

In M. Night Shyamalan's latest a family is held captive and told the fate of the world requires them to sacrifice one of their own. The direction shines and the script is obvious — but what else is new?

Kristen Cui (left) and Dave Bautista in ‘Knock at the Cabin.’ Universal Pictures

M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, the home invasion thriller Knock at the Cabin, is unlikely to alter anyone’s opinion of the filmmaker. It is, every inch, a Shyamalan movie. For me, it solidifies a feeling that’s lingered in my mind for years: M. Night Shyamalan is my favorite director whose films I only halfway adore. He’s like an incredible conductor leading an orchestra through a forgettable symphony. I love watching him work, even when the work itself doesn’t leave a lasting impression.

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KNOCK AT THE CABIN ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, Michael Sherman
Starring: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint
Running time: 139 mins.

Hailed in the early aughts as the next Spielberg, Hitchcock, and/or Serling for his tightly directed high-concept pop thrillers, Shyamalan eventually turned himself into a late night punchline with a string of expensive disasters. After a decade in the doghouse, he threw his hat over the wall and used the money his early career success had bought to fuel his rebirth as an auteur of low-budget, Blumhouse-style horror. Beginning with his first self-financed flick, 2015’s The Visit, he got his fastball back — at least, as a director. He’s a brilliant eye behind the camera. But the bizarre stories with repetitive themes and ludicrous twists remain. 

Knock at the Cabin adapts the Paul G. Tremblay novel The Cabin at the End of the World, but its premise is textbook Shyamalan: A family on vacation is held captive by a quartet of strangers who tell them that the world is about to come to an end, and the only way to prevent it is for the family to willingly sacrifice one of their own. Set mostly in a single location with seven characters, Knock at the Cabin features some shocking images and splashes of blood, but is mostly a psychological thriller and thought experiment. It has the storybook or Twilight Zone quality that Shyamalan’s films often have, where characters with simple objectives cope with a problem that’s just beyond their understanding. Like the beach that makes you age from Old, the dilemma in Cabin has a lot of very specific rules that conveniently railroad the narrative into the direction it has to go. And, like Signs (or most of his films, really), Knock at the Cabin is about family and a crisis of faith, both in humanity and in a higher power. 

Top billing on this picture goes to Dave Bautista, who, of the three former WWE World Champions currently starring in big-budget movies, is the one who can really act. One of the highlights of Knock at the Cabin is watching Big Dave ably handle a role that feels like it was written for John Goodman, that of gentle giant antagonist Leonard. He’s a big, quiet, and even-tempered man who could take you apart without breaking a sweat. He wants very badly not to hurt you, but God hasn’t given him much of a choice. Leonard and his cohorts are driven by visions they can’t explain (or are they?) to hold three innocent people hostage in the woods, and their constant apologies and equivocations only serve to make them scarier. The actual leads of the film are Eric (Jonathan Groff, Hamilton) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge, Spoiler Alert), the happy couple which spends half the movie tied to chairs. Andrew has a well-earned chip on his shoulder from a lifetime of being marginalized and abused for his sexuality, and is fiercely protective of the oasis of love and safety he’s built with Eric and their daughter Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui). He’s keenly aware of how messy and cruel our world is, to the extent that he’s able to dismiss possible signs of the apocalypse as everyday traumas of 21st century life. Everything good is in here, with him, now. Is anything outside these walls worth saving? Andrew provides most of the movie’s texture, as the other characters, particularly his saintly partner Eric, are merely functional.

Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, Dave Bautista, and Jonathan Groff (from left) in ‘Knock at the Cabin.’ Universal Pictures

The true star of the show, however, is M. Night Shyamalan, whose camera work remains a marvel. Most of Knock at the Cabin takes place in a single room with its protagonists trapped in a stationary position, and yet Shyamalan continually finds new ways to frame the space, the characters, and their relationships to each other. He cuts the room in half, isolates characters, sets them at odds, shifts the balance of power with every push or pan. Subtlety is not his thing, but where his heavy-handed screenwriting can quickly become exhausting, somehow his very literal-minded compositional choices are right on the money. Shyamalan is the kind of director that can make even the most casual viewer aware of the camera. (It’s one of the reasons why David Sims and Griffin Newman of the Blank Check podcast call him a “starter kit director.”) Maybe that’s not always a positive, but half the joy of watching Knock at the Cabin or any M. Night movie is the feeling of watching an artist make choices very loudly. I almost stop caring that the script is sweaty or obvious, or that the characters seem secondary to the movie’s big idea.

And so, I walk away from Knock at the Cabin with the same mix of opinions as I did when I saw Old in 2021: M. Night Shyamalan is probably a genius, and I mostly like his new movie. This may not be the most useful takeaway for a reader deciding whether or not to spend their hard-earned cash at the cinema this weekend, but it’s an honest one. Shyamalan has long provoked hyperbolic reactions from critics and audiences alike, but 15 films into his career, I think most of us know where we stand.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Knock at the Cabin’ Review: Masterfully Made, But Forgettable