Knock at the Cabin

Knock at the Cabin

One fine day, a young girl named Wen collects grasshoppers in a sun-dappled forest near a cabin in the woods.  She’s soon joined by Leonard (David Bautista), a hulk of a man with arms covered in tattoos.  Despite his threatening appearance, Leonard is a gentle giant who helps Wen with her task.  To her credit, Wen remains calm as Leonard’s enormous hands gently envelops a grasshopper.  When he casually states that he and his friends will soon meet Wen’s parents, she notices several people emerging from the trees holding scary weapons.  This finally triggers Wen’s “stranger danger” reflex and she runs to the cabin to alert her parents.

Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) at first are dismissive of Wen’s fears.  They believe that they are far enough removed from the world at large that they don’t have to worry about freaks and weirdos harassing them.  (How wrong they are.)  They soon spot the threatening foursome and lock the doors and windows.  Leonard knocks and calmly yet firmly insists that they let him and his associates in to “talk”.  Eric tries to dissuade them, but Leonard says that they will be forced to break in.  Which they do.  Andrew beats up one of the intruders named Redmon (Rupert Grint, such a good sport), but surrenders when Eric is knocked unconscious.

After the four have tied-up the vacationers, Leonard and friends introduce themselves.  They  met each other on an online forum.  (Uh-oh.)  They were looking for an explanation for the terrifying visions they were having, and discovered that they all had the same one.  (Double uh-oh.)  Andrew takes the intruders for nutjobs who empowered each other via the poisonous  echochamber that is social media.  (Yeah, that is definitely a thing, unfortunately.)  Leonard insists that they aren’t crazy.  In fact, they’re normal people.  Leonard is a grade school teacher.  Adriane (Abby Quinn) is a line cook.  Sabrina is a nurse (Nikki Amuka-Bird).  Redmond, still smarting from getting his ass beat by Andrew, says that he’s been incarcerated and held odd jobs.  (Andrew thinks he recognizes Redmond from a violent confrontation from before.  Hmm.)

Finally, Leonard explains what brings him and his associates to this particular cabin.  They have been chosen to convince Andrew, Eric and Wen to willingly sacrifice one of their own within the next 24 hours.  If they don’t, they will be forced to usher in the apocalypse.  Naturally, the family refuses to comply.  The three proceed to stab and bludgeon Redmond to death and state that a segment of humanity has been judged.  Leonard turns on the TV (BBC News, ha) and shows tsunamis have quickly devastated the western coast.  (So long, Portland.)  Andrew insists that it’s all a coincidence, but Eric isn’t sure.  To be fair, the movie plays with the notion that the foursome have staged the entire thing as a way to torment a LGBTQ couple.  (Flashbacks from Andrew and Eric’s past show how they’ve routinely encountered hatred and cruelty, so this notion isn’t as far-fetched.)

Overnight, Andrew and Eric debate whether to take what the now three intruders are asking.  Can they believe them?  Are they just fundamentalist religious wackos, or could what they are saying (and doing) actually be impacting the world?  Andrew keeps insisting that every “plague”  is a coincidence, but Eric fears that what is happening is fate.  Eventually, they must make a terrible choice.  The fate of humanity literally depends on it.

M. Night Shyamalan first made a name for himself with The Sixth SenseKnock is a different animal, though.  It’s an end-of-the-world drama infused with a philosophical dilemma: would you kill one of your own to save everyone else?  The movie pits two groups that have been at odds with each other for a long time and asks the gay couple to make the ultimate sacrifice.  This is inherently unfair, given the historical mistreatment and abuse LBGTQ people have faced from religious groups.  The follow-up question is more along the lines of, would you put aside your well-earned anger to save the world?  The movie is basically a lethal version of the game Scruples and asks you to play along.  (Or you could dismiss it all as clumsy hokum disguised as deep thinking.)

I like crazy apocalyptic movies that take themselves seriously, and Knock certainly does.  (Nic Cage’s Knowing would be appropriate for a double-bill.)  Shyamalan has always been a top-tier director, even in his worst movies.  Even the formless Old and the overcooked The Village are compulsively watchable in spite of their glaring narrative shortcomings.  As always, Shyamalan can’t help but resolve things with a heaping dose of sentimentality, even when the material points to a much darker conclusion (read the book).  The movie does feature a mesmerizing performance by Bautista, who seems ready to break out of superhero-dom.  Groff turns in a surprisingly empathic performance, probably the best in the movie and certainly the best I’ve seen from him to date.  If you’re in the mood for a crazy “the world’s gonna end!” movie experience, Knock should scratch that itch.  Mildly Recommended.


M. Night Shyamalan directed fifteen films before Knock at the Cabin.  I’ve seen nine of them, starting with The Sixth Sense.  That movie continues to be his personal high-water mark, both artistically and critically.  He’s had several unqualified box office successes since then, along with a few weird duds and a couple of complete failures.  Most directors have ebbs and flows to their careers, and expecting Shyamalan to hit the same level as The Sixth Sense every time out is unfair.  However, I can’t think of another director who has been this prolific and where the quality of each new release is an open question.

This is not to say that Shyamalan isn’t a good director.  Even his kooky films like The Village and Lady in the Water look great.  Shyamalan is always looking for interesting ways to frame a scene.  He  has been a great technical director throughout his career and will continue to be one.  The issue with his films isn’t a matter of where he points the camera, but whether the story he’s telling holds up through the end.  

The knock against Shyamalan has been that he became addicted to twist endings after The Sixth Sense.  That movie has an incredible twist ending that many movies have tried to replicate but very few have been able to achieve.  (Get Out is one.)  The problem with relying on twist endings is that if they don’t work they deflate the entire moviegoing experience.  This was the problem with Signs and The Village, two movies that were fun and enjoyable (to varying degrees) until the reveal at the very end.  In both cases, the ridiculous twist endings made everything that came before feel like a cheat.

Recently, when Shyamalan has avoided falling into the twist ending trap, his movies have been better.  The Visit and Split have their surprises, but neither were brought down by his tendency to outthink himself.  With Old and Glass, Shyamalan fell into his own trap and the movies suffered for it.  (I liked Glass anyway, because I thought its underlying message about the usefulness of superheroes was unique in a market supersaturated with superheroes.)  

With this in mind, I’m happy to say that Knock doesn’t have a twist ending.  For a while, the movie is cagey as to whether the events the horsemen show on TV are really happening in the world outside the cabin or not.  Every time Andrew states that the causal link between what the four horsemen do and the resulting catastrophe is pure coincidence, I found myself thinking, “Dude, you are in a Shyamalan movie.  There are no coincidences!”  Any doubt would have been resolved if the horsemen had simply let the TV play a little longer, or switch from BBC to CNN. For a movie about the apocalypse and how to prevent it, this angle of gamesmanship was unnecessary, but ultimately didn’t detract from the impact of the movie.

As I mentioned above, Knock is a good movie.  Much better than Old, though not at the same level as The Visit or Split.  What prevents Knock from achieving greatness is Shyamalan’s unwillingness to go for the jugular.  This is the reason why Shyamalan frequently resorts to twists at the end of his movies.  He isn’t comfortable with conclusions that are bleak or unsparing, no matter how truthful or resonant they may be.  He’s fine with putting his characters in peril, but he doesn’t want them to suffer or die, especially children.  No matter what happens in his movies, Shyamalan wants to be a comforting parent and protect the children from harm.

Even though Shyamalan’s movies often have a dark side, he seems queasy with confronting it head on.  There are instances when he lets his freak flag fly, though.  In Split and Glass, The Beast kidnaps and devours cheerleaders.  The Visit has that incredibly nasty diaper scene.  For the most part, though, Shyamalan keeps a respectful distance from the violence and gore at the heart of his own narratives.  In Knock, the horsemen are compelled to kill each other to nudge the apocalypse along, but Shyamalan never depicts the gruesome aspects of the killings themselves.  Instead, there are sounds and shocked reactions from the family.  I’m not saying I need to see a decapitation or bludgeoning in graphic detail to know that it happened, but in a story like this one, the horror of the situation is muted when Shyamalan averts his eyes from the brutality of the situation.

Surprisingly, the biggest twist of Knock is that the apocalypse the horsemen say is happening is actually happening and not a trick.  There are actual tsunamis, a virus outbreak and planes falling from the sky.  Shyamalan does substantially change how the story ends, however.  In the novel, Wen dies and Eric and Andrew are left to wander the Earth before humanity dies.  Shyamalan rewrites that extremely bleak ending so that Eric sacrifices himself for the greater good.  Once again, Shyamalan protects the children and insists on restoring order to chaos.  (I should mention that I haven’t actually read the novel.  My wife clued me in to how the movie diverges from the source.)

This tendency on Shyamalan’s behalf is why I don’t think he’s actually a suitable horror movie director.  Horror requires a viciousness, misanthropy and/or brutality that he’s just not comfortable with.  I honestly don’t know if Knock would have worked better with the novel’s original ending, but given the subject matter, the movie reflects Shyamalan’s desire to salve over the novel’s disturbing material instead of dealing with it directly.

The setup of Knock is like a parable.  If you put two diametrically opposed groups of characters in the same room and gave them a critical problem to solve, would they be able to put aside their differences and work together, or would they stand their ground and let the world end?  For this movie, it’s an LGBTQ family versus fundamentalist religious whackos.  The setup itself is a great one to air grievances, fears and hostilities.  It was a favorite of Rod Serling, who used it often in The Twilight Zone as a way to show that humanity’s core distrust would lead to its own self-destruction.  (See “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”)  The novel Knock is based on points squarely in this direction, but that is not a message Shyamalan would ever commit to.  Instead, he has Eric convince Andrew to kill him for the greater good.  The world is saved and Andrew and Wen can go on to live happy and fulfilling post-apocalyptic lives, but is that realistic?

For a majority of the movie, Andrew is in fierce denial about what is actually happening.  His fatal flaw is that his judgment is clouded by the assault he experienced in a bar years ago.  He keeps insisting that his family is being targeted and that what the horsemen are doing is a sick prank of some kind.  The plot requires Andrew and his family to make an impossible choice to save humanity, even though a significant portion of the people they would save hate them and would continue to hate them afterwards.  He doesn’t accept that they should be asked to sacrifice anything, given how they have already suffered enough.  That Eric’s death saves the world implies that even though everything Andrew believes is correct, they still must turn the other cheek and do what’s right for themselves and the world.

I doubt most people would do what Eric and Andrew do.  Where Shyamalan is an optimist, I’m a cynic.  I believe that is the message of the novel, that people who have been wronged their entire life would never agree to sacrifice a member of their family, even with the stakes being what they are.  Anger and hatred are too far ingrained for it to be pushed aside by a quartet of crazy people talking politely while wielding medieval weapons.  I would like to believe that Shyamalan’s faith in humanity would ultimately win out, but I’m dubious.

So why exactly am I (mildly) recommending this movie?  I have several reasons.  First, I admire crazy end of the world movies that tell their stories with seriousness and conviction.  Mocking the idea of the end of the world, as well as the people who believe in it is relatively easy (see This is the End).  Also easy is using the apocalypse as the jumping-off point for vacuous special effects vehicles (see 2012).  As fun as those movies can be, there are others like Knowing, Mimi Rogers vehicle The Rapture, HBO’s The Leftovers and now Knock that take the idea of the apocalypse seriously and wants us to consider what it would mean if we had to face the reality of it.  

Another aspect of Knock that I found intriguing was how it offers the characters a way to prevent the end of the world from happening.  Typically the end is nigh and there’s no way to stop it from coming.  Granted, the characters in Knock are asked to make an impossible (and unreasonable) choice to change the outcome.  However, the aspect of there being any choice at all is an interesting take on this genre.  Would you sacrifice someone you love to save the rest of the world?  Sure, it’s an amplified version of the trolly test (thank you The Good Place), or maybe the Scruples game if you’re less philosophically inclined.  Regardless, I appreciate a movie that puts its characters in an impossible situation and forces them to think their way out of it.

Next, Knock features several excellent performances.  David Bautista is great as Leonard.  I love his comedic touch in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but I haven’t seen him in anything else until this movie.  Somehow he’s able to portray Leonard, a giant with arms covered in tattoos, as a kind and sensitive man who regrets what he is doing every step of the way.  (Having him wear glasses definitely helped.)  It’s a performance that would have been infinitely more menacing in the hands of any other actor, but Bautista brings a gentleness to it that is surprising and disarming.

Jonathan Groff has been great in Netflix’s Mindhunters and The Matrix Resurrections, but these performances are more caricatures than actual people.  His Eric is less theatrical but much more human and relatable.  Knock positions his cerebral, introspective and sensitive Eric as the polar opposite of Ben Aldridge’s physical and emotional Andrew, and Groff’s characterization comes off much better overall.  (I grew tired of Andrew’s constant yelling after a while.)

Shyamalan is one of the best formalist directors working today, and his camera work in Knock is as great as ever.  Even his lesser movies (The Village, Old) always have something interesting to look at.  In this movie, he reportedly employed older cameras to give the movie a timeless feel.  At one point there’s a camera attached to Redmond’s head that records every punch Andrew lands.  I’ll confess that I don’t fully understand the reason behind Shyamalan’s  technical decisions, but I really don’t need to in order to appreciate a visually unique movie.

Rupert Grint deserves some recognition for playing a character nobody else likes that ends up getting killed off in the first act.  Perhaps he’s taking his queues from his fellow Hogwarts Alumni Radcliffe and sees taking unheralded, self-effacing roles like this as a way to getting interesting roles down the line.

Lastly, I liked Knock because Shyamalan is clear on the message he wants audiences to pick up on.  Unlike the unformed Jell-O that was Old, Knock returns again and again to the horror that an LGBTQ couple probably deals with often, from family and strangers alike.  The flashbacks to Eric and Andrew’s romance, marriage and adoption were the best in the movie.  I appreciated how the story links the character’s personal horror to an existential horror and asks them to reconcile the former in order to deal with the latter.  Sure, the deck is stacked heavily in one direction, but forcing the audience to confront some awful truths is never a bad thing.

Some folks on social media have commented that it was odd that Eric and Andrew don’t have any intimate moments in the movie, and don’t even share a kiss.  I can’t remember a Shyamalan movie that includes a kiss, so I think this criticism is unwarranted.  Even still, if I were going to ask my wife to plug me to save humanity, I would at least want a kiss first.  It’s really not too much to ask.

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