Knock at the Cabin (2023)

M. Night Shyamalan | 1hr 40min

At their weakest, M. Night Shyamalan’s high-concept thrillers fall prey to uneven, contrived plotting before whimpering out with underwhelming twists. Maybe then it is his decision to remain relatively faithful in adapting Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World which makes his most recent psychological horror such an engrossing moral dilemma of apocalyptic proportions. There is a translation that takes place from page to screen here which effectively keeps this single location from growing too inert in its staging, making Knock at the Cabin feel both arrestingly claustrophobic and dauntingly cosmic in its stakes. As a result, this home invasion story also feels entirely fresh in its setup, taking us right to the edge of Armageddon without leaving its surrounding rural forest.

The arrival of four mysterious strangers at the isolated holiday cabin where Eric, Andrew, and their daughter Wen are staying brings with it the ultimate ‘trolley problem’ – to avert the end of the world, one of them must kill another as a willing sacrifice. If they refuse, their small family will be the only ones left alive as the sole survivors. Each time they say no, another plague will be unleashed across the Earth, and though it quickly becomes evident to us that this is not a hoax, these young fathers remain wilfully obstinate.

As both slowly crack under pressure, Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge do well to carry the emotional drama of this predicament, poignantly considering the implications it holds for their futures. Even greater still are the performances delivered by the four visitors, each being strangers reluctantly bound together by visions of the future. Rupert Grint is volatile as the gruff ex-convict Redmond, while Abby Quinn and Nikki Amuka-Bird offset his malice in the much kinder roles of Adriane and Sabrina. Dave Bautista quite easily steals the spotlight as the gentle giant Leonard though, leading the crew with pained obligation. At times, that doleful acceptance of his own God-given duty is even more compelling than the central dilemma itself, as in his character we see the inevitable endpoint of both Eric and Andrew’s journeys. If they are men gradually learning to accept responsibility, Leonard is a man who has already been there and shouldered that burden.

Within Shyamalan’s tight framing and low angles, Bautista’s large stature often fills entire shots, bringing an imposing physical presence to his monologues that wistfully consider their destiny and onus as a collective group. In shallow focus close-ups too, he and his co-stars talk right down the lens of the camera, and Shyamalan relishes the opportunity here to push his style in uneasy directions as his canted angles start tilting their faces off-centre. The consistency of this aesthetic is admirable, turning what could have been flatly staged conversations into riveting confrontations, evidently inspired by Jonathan Demme’s intimate direction of the anxiety-inducing meeting between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

When the camera moves out into wider shots, the remote cabin proves to be a marvellously atmospheric set piece too with its giant bookcase and wooden interiors. There is taut tension here built into Shyamalan’s Hitchcockian camera movements and visual blocking alike, using the entire widescreen canvas to play out the nerve-wracking dynamics between victims and captors.

Quite simply, this is easily some of Shyamalan’s best direction, pulling together these elements into a singularly focused tension that rarely slips. Even here though, it is not without flaws. Flashbacks to Eric and Andrew’s past bring little besides additional character information that could have been more succinctly woven into the present-day plotline, and there is still the odd passage of needless exposition present that compromises the narrative momentum.

Still, this makes for a captivating 100 minutes of horror storytelling, getting under our skin with existential threats posed in Bautista’s calm, gentle manner. Between Eric and Andrew, we see two sides of humanity – one that submits to mistrustful cynicism, and a more selfless recognition of the pain that such wilful disbelief may inflict on others. Like so many of Shyamalan’s films, it is an expression of spiritual faith, accepting a greater purpose that is as equally mortifying as it is essential to human existence. By wrapping this up in such a sharply composed style, Knock at the Cabin lets us feel both the wondrous significance and disturbing fragility of human life on a grand, existential scale.

Knock at the Cabin is currently playing in theatres.


7 thoughts on “Knock at the Cabin (2023)”

  1. A sort of strange question. I don’t know where to post it so I’m doing it here.
    Does the magnitude of an acting performance has anything to do with body size?
    Like in real life a tall, bulky person looks intimidating. If you’re casting for a role of a leader then a taller, bulkier actor will look more of a leader than a shorter actor. But do you think that the shorter actor can act that up and it depends on the overall acting prowess.


    1. I don’t think it’s a really one to one thing – a lot of it comes back to the character as well. You look at someone like Charlie Chaplin who looks tiny next to everyone else onscreen, but he uses his small stature so well to comedic effect. For an even more obvious example you can look at the hobbits in LOTR who I think make an impact because of their size. I think in this case Bautista’s huge presence really helps him out here. The contrast between his size and gentle demeanour is striking. And of course a lot of that does come down to the way he is shot as well. Shyamalan’s low angles and close-ups really draw out that aspect of his performance in a way that a lot of other filmmakers working with Bautista haven’t done before.


  2. Have you seen Army of Shadows? If not then I’m sure you would have seen atleast one Simone Signoret film. So my question was with respect to her and Jeanne Moreau.
    So Moreau in my (objective) opinion is a more varied, versatile and overall superior performer but Signoret has this big presence. Now for Army of Shadows, Moreau would be at her peak in 1969 and in her 40s (just like signoret in 1969) and I’m totally sure that Moreau will nail the character psychologically not a single thing will be missed but can she just act up the big presence of Signoret.
    You can also take Les Diaboloques or Madame Rosa in your consideration, roles in which I think that Moreau will have a better hand (deceiving femme fatale and a retired prostitute – c’ mon it’s Moreau’s zone considering the incalculable number of prostitutes (also retired ones – haha) and femme fatales she has played) but Signoret has a bigger presence.
    Your thoughts please?


    1. I have seen Army of Shadows, but I don’t feel entirely qualified yet to speak on Moreau. She’s radiant in Jules and Jim and I adore her in La Notte. But the other films of hers I’ve seen she has smaller parts like Chimes at Midnight and The Trial. I would really like to get to Elevator to the Gallows soon though since I know that’s a big one for her.


  3. Nice!
    Can you picture Moreau as Madame Mathilde in Army of Shadows?
    Moreau is beyond brilliant. There’s almost no role in 50s 60s French / Italian cinema that Moreau can’t have a take on and excel at.


  4. We’re on the same page. And this kinda answers my question. That it’s about overall acting prowess after all. That there’s no reason why a tiny actor can’t excel at playing an intimidating villian Or a huge actor can’t excel at a victim.


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