Hungarian composer Franz Liszt morbidly characterized life as nothing more than an interminable suicide made only salvageable through faith, the necessary catalyst to transform our inevitable decrepitude “into a sacrifice.” But for whom is the benefit of this — or any sacrifice?
So, hallowed is this concept, the act of homage or offering for the sake of something (be it tangible or otherwise) it’s inherently conditioned as necessary and imperative. We are taught we can have nothing without some sort of sacrifice. It’s in our blood. Sacrifice for the sake of humanity itself is the beating heart of Knock at the Cabin, the latest offering from M. Night Shyamalan, continuing to probe the queasy relationship of the compromised familial unit through their fraught relationship with society at large.
Adapting the 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, making significant changes to the third act, Shyamalan initially presents a topsy-turvy swirl of religious belief vs. rational thought by filtering a significant moral dilemma through a semi-queer lens in a world where the tables have seemingly turned between victim and antagonist. Although faith and spirituality have often factored into the predicaments of Shyamalan’s narratives, never before has he produced something so blatantly configured as faith-based horror, to the degree where Tremblay’s prose feels more like Tim LeHaye of the Left Behind series.
Although its core conundrum remains fascinating, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman’s script (co-written with the director) lacks a certain acuity and desperation, eventually feeling as rudimentary as a Psych 101 group project on ethics or a half-hearted board game whose players eventually are worn down to self-sabotage for the sake of concluding. Shyamalan has fashioned a full-blown faith-based horror film without retaining Tremblay’s ambiguity, suggesting an omnipotent deity periodically demanding rampant bloodletting…or else. For audience members who aren’t Catholic, why no one from this ensemble voices an outright refusal to believe in such barbarism from the source of an imagined divinity suggests Shyamalan’s trickery, this time around, is an oddly fashioned take on The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Wen (Kristen Cui), who is about to turn eight, chitters happily with her jar of captured grasshoppers while on vacation with her dads Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff). Her playtime is interrupted by the appearance of a hulking man named Leonard (Dave Bautista), suddenly appearing from the woods surrounding their isolated cabin. After sharing some superficial information with the friendly but melancholic man, she’s alarmed to see three more people appear in his wake, whom Leonard describes as ‘co-workers,’ all carrying dangerous looking makeshift weapons. As Redmond (Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and Adrian (Abby Quinn) approach, Wen flees to the cabin, alerting her parents, who quickly lock the doors. As the quartet of interlopers eventually make their way inside, it appears Andrew and Eric hold the fate of humanity in their hands. And over the next several hours, they will be coerced into making a difficult, violent decision.
The popcorn-horror offerings of Shyamalan have almost always felt like the makeshift progeny of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, and Knock at the Cabin lands right in the middle of these two titans’ territories of dysfunctional and/or chosen families guided through a metaphorical crisis of faith. Despite the use of foul language, Shyamalan seems to have squandered his R rating with much of the significant violence taking place off screen, the camera scooting to the exterior of the cabin sometimes rather than exploiting the horror of having a front row seat to compulsory murder-suicides. More provocative are the film’s attempts to frame interpretations of the media, questioning how and when “facts” are being presented, and how certain situations or external stimuli can lead us to interpret information however we see fit based on our worldviews and isolated realities.
Andrew rages about “shared delusions,” and it’s this tussling between vague ambiguities allowing for Knock at the Cabin’s tension, only furthered by the snippets of the couples’ past, defined by blatant homophobia and micro-aggressions. But Shyamalan, as his filmography proves, ultimately despises uncertainty, prizing a nifty twist or a final, irreconcilable conclusion (not to mention his own distracting, unnecessary cameos).
The novelty of showcasing how a liberal, progressive gay couple undergoing the dreary reversal of fortune through embracing (by default, kinda) a rigid, repressive perspective is where Knock at the Cabin feels its most compelling. One wonders what a queer filmmaker might have pushed by uncomfortably asking a pair of white, affluent gays to make any kind of sacrifice — to their comfort or otherwise — for their “fellow man.” Shyamalan doesn’t know how to navigate the complexities of these white gay men well enough to even suggest they’ve any faults whatsoever. They’re the equivalent of how weaknesses in a job interview are recalibrated as strengths. It’s difficult not to wonder what someone like Sebastian Silva or Jennifer Kent might have done to craft these characters, whose victimhood and self-entitlement have coalesced into something more inextricable and inherently complex than the glossy composites of Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge.
As usual, Shyamalan does a fine job of conjuring a pleasing earnestness from his cast, even from his child actors (this time around, newcomer Kristen Cui). It’s immediately apparent the four visitors are supposed to represent the four horsemen of the apocalypse (yet the script takes pains to tell us this directly in the third act), which means Dave Bautista, Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird (who was also in his 2021 film Old), and Abby Quinn are merely ciphers rather than corporeal humans.
As Leonard regrettably informs the salvation-conscripted family whose idyllic vacation is rudely interrupted: “You’ve been chosen to decide for us in this time.” But Shyamalan’s version of Knock at the Cabin avoids the scenario’s logical counterview, diminishing any sentiments questioning a deity or a universe demanding intermittent traumatization of a few for the oblivious existence of the whole. Why agree to being an accomplice to the whims of a nonsensical providence? The conundrum shouldn’t be merely “what” we have to do to survive without also taking into account “why” or “how,” not to mention “who” actually benefits. By setting its stakes so impossibly high, Knock at the Cabin requires a sophistication lacking from this modified cookie-cutter crisis which proposes you gotta have faith to overlook its impaired design.
Watch Nick and his husband Joseph review (and spoil) films on their YouTube channel, Fish Jelly Film Reviews. Their podcast of the same name is available everywhere.