Knock At The Cabin review: a family must make a choice

Dave Bautista in Knock At The Cabin
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Dave Bautista is chilling as the antagonist of M Night Shyamalan’s Knock At The Cabin – here’s our review.

The only thing scarier than a man the size of Dave Bautista is a man the size of Dave Bautista wearing tiny glasses and speaking so softly that it’s almost a whisper. That’s the core horror at the centre of Knock At The Cabin – director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest dark thriller, adapted from Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin At The End Of The World.

It’s a movie that throws up some short, sharp shocks amid an apocalyptic plot, with a central dilemma that contains echoes of Sophie’s Choice and, more recently, Yorgos Lanthimos’s bleakly brilliant The Killing Of A Sacred Deer. Sadly, it can’t match the psychological depth of its predecessors.

The story begins in chilling fashion, with stranger Leonard (Bautista) approaching young girl Wen (Kristen Cui) as she collects grasshoppers outside the cabin where she’s staying with her fathers (Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff). After their apparently cordial but sinister conversation, Leonard says that he and his friends – including Harry Potter star Rupert Grint, who previously worked with Shyamalan on TV series Servant – will need access to their cabin. After a scuffle of a home invasion, the cult-like gang informs the family that they have to make a terrible choice in order to avert the end of the world.

With such a constrained setting in which to work – the movie almost never leaves the cabin – Shyamalan deftly ratchets up the tension as the implications of the family’s choice, or lack thereof, begin to play out both inside and outside the suffocating wooden walls. He’s helped by the claustrophobic and deeply atmospheric cinematography of Jarin Blaschke, who previously crafted psychological chills in The Lighthouse to Oscar-nominated effect.

Bautista’s presence is a real boon to the movie, with his hulking physique seeming to fill every inch of the room. But the former WWE star has consistently shown himself to be far more than a mere muscle-man over the years, and here allows quietly terrifying charisma to usurp his undeniable physical threat. He’s not out to hurt the family he’s holding captive – and that’s the scariest thing about him.

A still of the antagonists of M. Night Shyamalan's Knock At The Cabin.

Aldridge, Groff and Cui are instantly believable as a tight-knit family unit. There’s an admirable simplicity in the way Shyamalan’s script – based on an initial draft by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman – sketches out their personalities and differences, so flashbacks plotting out their history seem perfunctory and serve only to minimise the broiling tension.

The film also deserves credit for spotlighting a gay couple as protagonists in a storyline that isn’t focused on their sexuality, but also doesn’t ignore the way it impacts their experience of the world – a nuance from which many movies could learn a lot.

With the characters looking strong and Shyamalan’s nimble mastery of tone on show, the ingredients are there for Knock At The Cabin to be another of the director’s thriller hits. However, the movie begins to feel increasingly flat as the story goes on. Once the building blocks of the initial premise are laid out, there are few surprises in how the action unravels, particularly in an ending which feels like the least interesting way to resolve the knotty central predicament.

In many ways, the undeniable competence of Knock At The Cabin is what takes it down a few pegs. Despite the unimaginably high stakes, the film is workmanlike and constrained – lacking the streak of madness that characterises the best of Shyamalan’s work. After the ambitious but disappointing Old, this is the director on safer ground. No matter how much blood is shed and how many histrionic speeches the characters spew at gunpoint, the action is firmly on the rails. Bautista’s choice of eyewear is as shocking as it gets.

There are real pleasures to be found here, with strong performances convincingly selling a dark premise which could easily have felt over-cranked and unbelievable. It’s not Shyamalan on top-drawer The Sixth Sense form, but nor is it one of his infamous disasters. Perhaps damningly, it exists squarely in mid-table – the Crystal Palace of psychological thrillers.

Knock At The Cabin is in cinemas on 3rd February.

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