Review: ‘Knock at the Cabin’ is Shyamalan’s best in years — but that isn’t saying much

Jake Guldin, deputy lifestyle editor

Following the critical and commercial successes of M. Night Shyamalan’s first two features at the turn of the 21st century, Newsweek boldly heralded the auteur as “the next Spielberg.” In the decades since, though, Shyamalan has largely failed to satisfy the lofty expectations implied by such a moniker.

The Philadelphia-based writer-director’s latest release, “Knock at the Cabin,” is occasionally reminiscent of the superb early works that earned him the aforementioned title — something that cannot be said of his other recent endeavors. However, it still pales overall in comparison to the likes of “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable.”

Based on Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” the Universal Pictures release follows a tight-knit family — fathers Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) — who, while vacationing in a secluded cabin, are attacked by a group of four strangers. After tying up their victims, the quartet — Leonard (Dave Bautista), Redmond (Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and Adriane (Abby Quinn) — boldly claim that an impending apocalypse may only be avoided if the trio make the unthinkable sacrifice of one of their own.

Although Shyamalan’s adaptation never fully delivers on the intrigue established by such a premise, certain aspects are executed with a proficiency seldom observed in other mainstream horror offerings.

Everyone within this star-studded ensemble delivers fascinating, well-rounded performances — a miracle given how much of a handicap the screenplay is. Of the seven actors, though, one stands well above the rest: Bautista.

As the de facto leader of the film’s intimidating and eclectic antagonists, Bautista exhibits a sensitivity hitherto unseen, especially in the opening scenes with 9-year-old Cui. As the wrestler-turned-actor helps the young girl corral grasshoppers into a jar, he speaks calmly while inquiring about her life and family, charming her and the audience by proxy. Even after binding the familial unit to chairs, Bautista frequently exudes patience and compassion, revealing the sincerity of his character’s temperate disposition. His soft demeanor subverts the audience’s expectations of Leonard due to his imposing figure, solidifying him as a gentle giant. 

Joining Bautista and the rest of the ensemble as a bright spot is the “Signs” filmmaker’s masterful command of the camera. Through the use of whip pans, dolly zooms and other techniques, Shyamalan crafts a series of dynamic visuals, ensuring viewers are enraptured for the entirety of the film’s 100-minute runtime. 

Shyamalan also takes repeated advantage of close-ups, allowing the viewer to study and, as a result, truly feel the emotions displayed by the cast’s facial expressions. 

Beyond camera movement and composition, the movie’s cinematography — a joint effort between Lowell A. Meyer and Jarin Blaschke — provides the soft warmth one would associate with the faraway getaway in which it is set. This quality further serves to contrast the shocking and often devastating violence that befalls the people of Shyamalan’s fictional world.

Unfortunately, any suspense manufactured by the film’s excellent camerawork and stellar performers is severely undercut by Shyamalan and his co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman. 

As with other Shyamalan pictures, the dialogue, in particular, is incredibly stilted. Conversations in the film’s remote locale are unnatural to the point of distraction, ruining the immersion established by the previously described elements. Beyond this, the project’s screenplay conveys little faith in the audience, specifically in the third act, as the writing team elects to include lines that are heavy-handed and, frankly, unnecessary. 

Shyamalan, Desmond and Sherman also radically altered Tremblay’s original text while translating it for the silver screen, with the film’s second half differing greatly from its source material. Though story changes are a natural part of the adaptation process, some, such as the movie’s new ending, are immensely frustrating, as they strip the narrative of its ambiguity and thought-provoking nature. 

Despite boasting career-best work from Bautista, an invested ensemble and impressive visuals, “Knock at the Cabin” — though superior to other works from Shyamalan’s not-so-distant past — is another underwhelming addition to his increasingly uneven filmography.