A democracy is only as strong as the ability of the public to form a consensus, which requires thoughtful discussion. Sadly, persuasion isn’t just a dying art, it’s been intentionally euthanized. “Knock at the Cabin” is a movie about a small group of people who desperately need to convince another small group of people to do something. The first group shows up armed and violently tortures the second group, primarily using cable news. That’s about where we’re at when it comes to argumentation these days, right?
Related: It’s not the wrong time to make a movie that unpacks the undue burden society has placed on vulnerable minority groups. However, M. Night Shyamalan is absolutely the wrong writer/director to make that movie. He is beholden to the superficial, to the fleeting thrill of a plot twist and the meticulous adoration of cinematic language. Allowing someone with his filmography to answer “Should gay people make further sacrifices for the greater good?” is like asking Tony Romo his thoughts on Kierkegaard.
“Knock at the Cabin” is based on Paul Tremblay’s book, “The Cabin at the End of the World.” That title change is both unnecessary and objectively worse, so it’s absolutely fitting. Having read only the Wiki of the novel’s plot, the book is infinitely better and hereby excused from the rest of this conversation. Go make butterflies fly and LeVar Burton proud and read instead. Because Shyamalan and cowriters Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman have so obviously missed Trembaly’s point, which was clear as day after reading only the synopsis.
What we get instead is basically “Trolley Problem: The Movie.” Leonard (Dave Bautista), a soft-spoken man mountain and elementary school teacher, befriends young Wen (Kristen Cui) while she’s on vacation. Her dads, Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff), are shocked when Lennie and his buddies demand entry into their cabin. Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Redmond (Rupert Grint), and Adriane (Abby Quinn) break in wielding massive weapons. The quartet pretty quickly gets to the point and says that if Andrew, Eric, and Wen don’t choose to kill one of their family members as a human sacrifice, the whole world will end.
Although beautifully filmed and almost perfectly paced, at no point does “Knock at the Cabin” actually build the tension it so clearly feels entitled to. It keeps pointing to the epic, impossible stakes but doesn’t turn screws so much as tread water. Andrew occasionally shouts out the subtext, screaming that it isn’t fair that he and Eric should have to pay this price for a world that still largely hates them. But Shyamalan lacks the willingness, if not the empathy and ability, to actually explore that incredibly important issue. Instead, he alters the final act of Tremblay’s source material in a way that fundamentally changes the very argument it was making.
Without spoiling anything, what we’re left with is a silly, sloppy thesis that more or less tries to please everyone. It would be a totally fair reading to think that the point of the film is that we should really be nicer to apocalyptic prophesizing religious whackadoos. No thanks! All the performers do wonderful work, and nothing feels truly off about the movie until literally one single second of actual reflection.
Shyamalan makes cinematic pop rocks: They feel kinda fun and weird at first but dissolve almost instantly and contain absolutely nothing of nutritional value. “Knock at the Cabin” is well-crafted hokum at best and morally objectionable at worst.
It’s still better than “Old.”
Grade = C-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Andrea Thompson at Wealth of Geeks says “‘Knock’ refuses to explore the implications of its own philosophy or history, with no mention of how the religious values it embraces and espouses have left their own trails of blood, with a body count that includes every letter of the LGTBQ community.”
Charles Pulliam-Moore at The Verge says “By design, many elements of the movie’s doom-laden parable are open to interpretation, and it often feels as though ‘Knock at the Cabin’ might actually want you to pause for a moment to debate with someone else about what’s happening.”
Hoit-Tran Bui at Inverse says “Its Biblical apocalypse prevents it from playing as anything more than a parable, and limits it from reaching for any deeper meaning beneath the surface-level suspense. The latter makes some readings of the film’s ending as potentially insidious feel thin.”