Balancing Old Testament Biblical scale with intimate human drama, the director sets a high bar for 2023's blockbuster crop
After his years spent in the wilderness with The Happening, After Earth etc., M. Night Shyamalan’s career has made for a welcome comeback story ever since the commercial success and surprise world-building of 2016’s Split. Now, with Knock at the Cabin, that comeback may have reached its apex. A taut and ferocious single-location thriller that is at once both intimate and Biblically epic, it’s his best film since Signs, mixing apocalypse with home invasion for a heady and wonderfully ambitious brew.
Adapting the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, Shyamalan wastes absolutely no time in getting us to the meat of this story, as a gay couple’s holiday with their adopted seven-year-old daughter is interrupted by four people claiming to be arbiters of the end of the world. Led by the hulking but soft-voiced Leonard (Dave Bautista), this group breaks into the holiday cottage owned by Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), demanding that the couple must choose to sacrifice one of themselves to avert the apocalypse.
Shyamalan tears through this initial scene-setting with speed and efficiency, the inciting break-in very well-staged. As well as being thrilling, it also serves as a solid foundation for the characters – Eric is fiercely loyal but a bit hesitant and Andrew is a man of action, while Leonard is casually in control even as the rest of his group occasionally resort to panic. This power struggle is over quicker than you might expect, though, and it’s not long before we’re into the real doomsday stuff.
Without wanting to spoil too much, Leonard’s apocalypse starts to seem ever more real, genuine terror setting on both sides, keeping you guessing without resorting to anything too “twisty-y.” As the stakes escalate, Shyamalan brings us along with them – even as everything gets very Old Testament in all the talks of plague and sacrifice, the central human conflicts ground the story thanks to a very well-worked and affecting homophobia allegory that is never once sidelined for the sake of expediency. Groff and Aldridge make for a movingly convincing couple, and their parental bond with young daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) is powerful, even if Wen can sometimes devolve into a typical Shyamalan-ian weirdly precocious child.
The star performance, though, is indisputably from Bautista, who here equals or maybe even betters his previous career highlight in Blade Runner 2049. He takes what could have been a straightforwardly menacing character and imbues him with a warmth and sense of regret that is both affecting and unnerving. It’s in this sort of disquiet that Shyamalan makes his home with Knock at the Cabin. It’s far from being a full-on horror, but it still gnaws at something inside you – the apocalyptic imagery conjured here is genuinely frightening. Most “end of the world” movies are limited by their abstractly enormous stakes and scope, fear flattened out by how patently impossible the circumstances are, but Shyamalan and DOP Jarin Blaschke (a regular collaborator with Robert Eggers) overcome this problem in inspired ways.
It’s not all perfect – as is par for the course, some of the dialogue here is real clunky and the supporting performances are noticeably weaker than the lead trio – but this is Shyamalan operating at his highest directorial level in decades. More emotionally ambitious and effective than Split or Glass and more fun than Old, Knock at the Cabin shows the director fully living up to the potential he displayed with those barnstorming early works all those years ago.
Knock at the Cabin is released in UK cinemas on 3 February.Where to watch