Though not one of his better-regarded efforts, The Happening was M. Night Shyamalan at his most bare, outright revealing his thesis on filmmaking. Explicit in the title, the writer-director thinks the point of a movie is to ask and finally answer, “So… what’s happening?” Shyamalan has been pigeonholed as the “twist ending” guy, but he’s not even about that so much as giving a finale that answers, “And here’s what happened!” Famously labeled “The Next Spielberg” on the cover of a 2002 Newsweek, it’s a comparison that bears repeating if only in cruelly imagining how Shyamalan would handle Spielberg’s works. Turns out, they were in a dinosaur theme park the whole time! Wow, E.T. was not a little gremlin but an extra-terrestrial! Oh, he was making his list because of the Holocaust! That’s what happened!
Shyamalan’s latest, Knock at the Cabin is more of the same—not that it’s all that bad despite itself. A couple (Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff) and their young daughter (Kristen Cui) are staying at a remote cabin when they, yes, get their titular knock. Who’s there? It’s Dave Bautista, Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Abby Quinn. They’re all armed with makeshift weapons and share a collective vision that the world will end in a series of calamities unless one of these woodland vacationers sacrifices another. Also, Dave’s serial killer meets Mission Control-theme wrestler look make him look insane. It’s probably hard for a man built like him to not look at least slightly insane in any normal human clothing, but this particular look is unnerving.
As Bautista continually turns on the television to reveal exceptionally cheap cable-news-in-a-movie-looking footage of plagues and disasters being unleashed, the family delays picking their sacrificial lamb, and Knock at the Cabin asks less about who will be chosen than, of course, what’s happening? Is this a shared delusion among the home invaders? A bizarre hate crime? Or is this, somehow, actually happening?
The Cabin at the End of the World, the Paul Tremblay novel the film is based on, leaves it vague, answering only with the indignance that any God could be so cruel as to ask the question in the first place. Here’s what happened guy M. Night, of course, does not.
Knock at the Cabin is a tense, effective, and—despite some needless flashbacks and expository dialogue that pad its already slim 100 minutes—often very efficient thriller. Bautista’s imposing, stoic presence, a human storm most threatening in his calmest moments, hasn’t been used better since the actor’s scene-stealing Blade Runner 2099 appearance. But the movie is ultimately a cheap, cartoon mattress that you get comfy in before the compressed springs burst out in every direction. Just as Spielberg cut his teeth doing an episode of Columbo, The Next Spielberg has here made what amounts to a very good episode of Fact or Fiction. The whole time, you’re just waiting for Jonathan Frakes to come out and reveal whether this bizarre scenario is real or not. Instead you get Shyamalan—first in a distracting cameo as an infomercial host trying to make a sale. Later, as director, he ends up just giving it away.
Knock at the Cabin
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Studio: Universal Pictures
Runtime: 100 minutes
Cast: Dave Bautista, Ben Aldridge, Jonathan Groff, Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, Kristen Cui