Prophets of Dumb

‘A Knock At the Cabin’ presents a classic ethical dilemma as a cornball thriller

Knock, knock—who’s there? Suicidal doomsday proselytizers! The dread-drenched kooky thriller Knock at the Cabin traffics in sensation over logic, conspiracy over common sense, faith over reason. And then it wraps all the bombast in the naggingly enduring American notion that the individual is paramount—especially when it comes to sacrifice. If you believe that one person’s life can determine the fate of the world, then this movie’s for you.

KNOCK AT THE CABIN ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, Michael Sherman
Starring: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint
Running time: 100 min

In M. Night Shyamalan’s latest gimmicky mindfuck, a quartet of home invaders, convinced that the end is nigh, break into a remote cabin in the woods and terrorize the people inside: two married men (Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge) and their adopted daughter (Kristen Cui). Dave Bautista is the spacy invaders’ spokesman, and strikes a wonderful tone of mournful menace. Harry Potter alum Rupert Grint is one of his backup crew, which is of course completely distracting. Anyway, they tie up the fathers and tell them that they can avert permanent midnight if the family trio agrees to kill one of their own.

The film is a grindhouse version of the runaway trolley thought experiment that asks whether the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Do nothing, and everyone dies; or save unknown masses by executing a single person you love. It’s a classic ethical dilemma ripe for endless conversation—and narratively it’s a psych-out that doesn’t need much structural discipline. Which is fine for Shyamalan, a director who’s always been more concerned with set-piece tension and moment-to-moment suspense than he is with realistic situations and believable human behavior, let alone cogent themes or morals.

So we get a soundtrack larded with chords of gloom: weeping violins and moaning cellos cascade through all the tense dialogue and anxious grimaces, as the end-times evangelists spout pseudo-Biblical proclamations like “A part of humanity has been judged” and then commit shocking acts of violence. It’s effective, but only superficially. The cultish marauders, by the way, have a dopey habit of standing in stiff poses with bizarre makeshift weapons—a mullet head chained to a pick, a pitchfork wedded to an axe head—and talk about they each had visions that brought them together. That, plus an online message board where they shared their paranoiac hot takes.

“We were called,” they explain, to help prevent the apocalypse. They’re like the Four Horseman in reverse: instead of calling themselves Death, Famine, War, and Conquest, they self-identify as Healing, Guidance, and Nurturing—plus, for some reason, the less uplifting Malice. Organized religion, specifically Christianity, plays a strange role in the film: Shyamalan takes it seriously only insofar as it motivates peoples’ behavior and helps validate any supernatural elements. Otherwise, its greater theological implications, let alone its dogmatic details, are kind of beside the point. Which maybe makes this pseudo-spiritual flick even more quintessentially American.

Ratcheting up the fear factor, the dire group turns on the TV at weirdly well-timed moments where newscasters helpfully provide exposition that may or may not foretell the end of the world: underwater earthquakes triggering tsunamis with 50-foot waves, flu viruses that decimate child populations, passenger jets literally falling from the sky. They claim that their deeds in the house correlate with these global tragedies—which of course makes no sense, because these types of events don’t happen that quickly. Except for the plunging airplanes, of course, which actually look kind of harrowing and also absolutely hilarious.

The will-they-won’t-they question driving the film: whether or not the hostages ever truly believe that making the ultimate choice would save the world. This being a Shyamalan production, we’d forgive you for thinking that there will be a plot twist at the end. The big twist is that there’s no twist. Just some brief moments when the survivors process the traumatic experience they just suffered through. The takeaway? Maybe something about how parenthood is the ultimate sacrifice? Sure, why not. All I know is that it’s pretty fun to watch Dave Bautista and his ad-hoc clique of desperate goons freak out on a bunch of strangers.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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