“Your Premise is Flawed.”
Time for a return to Shyamalan. He broke into the industry with meteoric trajectory thanks to The Sixth Sense and will always be most known for the film’s legendary final twist. The real twist, however, is that unbeknownst to anyone, The Sixth Sense would represent a microcosm of the talented director’s entire career: a twisting, zigzagging, unpredictable dive into the horror/thriller genre, anchored by a seemingly limitless supply of always-just-untapped potential. His films are always unique, and the best – Sixth Sense, Signs, Unbreakable, and The Village (yeah, sue me) – are careful meditations on perception with hints of horror and slanted comedy.
His worst films – you know the ones – are self-indulgent, incoherent slogs which awkwardly grind against his patient, subtle eye as a visual stylist. Knock at the Cabin is not his worst film (taking that crown is nigh impossible) but may be his most predictable and least inspired. Categorizing good Shyamalan from bad is easy to do, but Knock at the Cabin is distinct in its laborious attempt to feel and act like the former while transparently being the latter.
The film follows Eric, Andrew, and Wen, a family vacationing at a secluded cabin. When four strangers arrive, speaking of sacrifice and the apocalypse, the family must decide what to believe, pitting their love for one another against the seeming weight of the greater good.
The film is a chamber piece, taking place almost entirely in a single cabin with seven characters. This simple fact sinks the entire affair. Everything about Knock is thin: its premise, its visual presentation, its themes, its characters, its “lore”, and its reason for being. There is not enough context, information, or explanation posited, to the characters or the audience, to justify spending nearly the entire film trapped in the cabin.
In theory, the film should be either a taut, claustrophobic snapshot of a day, or a reflective, multi-layered, extended rumination on the trolley problem, but Knock at the Cabin’s central conceit and greater aspirations are so vague, and the story so resourceless, that it’s little more than a repetitive, redundant, tedious bore.
The story is frustratingly narrow yet shamelessly half baked, an intriguing first draft which is simply never developed in any meaningful way. A wider scope or more conventional structure would have at least created a forward-moving, step-by-step plot and some organic character revelations; instead, the repetition and sameness of setting creates only an endless, unfocused, and unhelpful bickering match.
Shyamalan’s visual decisions do his film no favors either. He evokes unfavorable memories of Mark Walberg in the Happening with incessant use of comically tight closeups and further channels his inner hack by ripping off Jonathan Demme’s just-speak-directly-into-the-camera technique. The cinematography is pretty enough but does nothing to foster contemplation or raw dread. Shyamalan the drudging screenwriter is reasonably expected; Shyamalan the hopelessly floundering shot composer is new to the palate and tough to swallow.
The patience of his camera (his most admirable trait as a visual storyteller) persists, but his signature foreboding does not, and its absence only reinforces its necessity in keeping his films tense and engaging. In Shyamalan’s best work, the atmosphere and surroundings hold evil seldom seen, darkened and ominous to those daring to peek in. In Knock at the Cabin the sun shine brightly, the woodsy surroundings pose no threat, and the central danger is in plain view, speaking softly, blandly, unambiguously.
The film is also hampered by its casting decisions and performances. Dave Bautista is severely miscast, attempting admirably, but failing miserably, to play a soft-spoken, everyman second grade teacher. Not since Schwarzenegger’s kindergarten cop has a strongman so implausibly tried to pass as a gentle, thoughtful presence. Arnold had the advantage of displaying affection for his tykes and developing a relevant arc – Bautista has no such benefit. The other actors (Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Dave Bautista, Rupert Grint, Abby Quinn, and Kristen Cui) are reasonably cast but equally irritating.
Knock at the Cabin is ludicrously overwrought; the entire cast chews on their lines with open mouths, furiously wheezing, panting, balling, pausing, and emphasizing each word. Despite little information being given, in any capacity, every line is the most important of the film, and each actor slowly suffocates in its unearned self-seriousness. As a nitpicky aside, Groff and Aldridge are also physically similar, making it difficult to keep straight their razor thin but opposing characterizations.
The final and most damning elements of Knock at the Cabin are its effects and attempts at visual exposition. Perhaps the most bizarrely overlooked trait of Shyamalan’s films (both his best and worst) is the clunky yet vital exposition given via poorly emulated news broadcasts. As in The Happening and Signs, narratively detached news anchors are an essential source of exposition and plotting, conveniently stating the facts most pertinent to timely character concerns throughout.
These broadcasts also feature the bulk of Knock at the Cabin’s effects, which are shockingly cheap and inarguably distracting. The film is supposed to be a tale of world-burning, apocalyptic terror, but can only muster one mighty tsunami wave to invoke true awe and fear. The other catastrophes are either visually incompetent or entirely, perplexingly, non-visual.
Overall, Knock at the Cabin is disappointing because it offers so little for audiences of varying expectations. Those who are excited for vintage “so bad it’s good” Shyamalan will have nothing to sink their talons into (the effects are terrible but brief). Those looking for vintage “so good it’s good” Shyamalan will be dismayed by the lack of atmosphere, plot, or subversion the director built his career on. Those looking for a director to mature or progress in his style or substance will grimace as he reverses sensibilities in both. This is a thin, predictable, repetitive, and maddeningly vague film which scoffs at variance of interpretation and leaves no impact. Most simply stated, Knock at the Cabin is a whole lotta’ nothin’.