Knock at the Cabin and the Terror of Raising Children
M. Night Shyamalan understands how to make a ludicrous horror concept work: Add in a healthy dose of tenderness.
M. Night Shyamalan’s filmmaking career has taken many wild and woolly turns over 30-plus years, but recently, he seems to have struck on a powerful, understated plot formula: What if you went on a vacation with your children and something terrible happened? In his 2021 hit, Old, a family gets stuck on a secret beach that ages them rapidly. His new follow-up, Knock at the Cabin, proposes another Twilight Zone–esque conundrum to a family trying to enjoy a weekend away. Simply put, the world is ending, and the only way to stop it is by killing someone they love.
That ultimatum is delivered to them by four intimidating strangers carrying medieval-looking weapons, led by the hulking Leonard (played by Dave Bautista). The family at risk is a gay couple, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), and they immediately assume that the threat is just a cruel hoax rooted in prejudice, which the home invaders deny. Shyamalan has become deeply preoccupied with how family units can be tested by enormous, even supernatural stress. Knock at the Cabin is maybe his bluntest exploration yet, as Eric and Andrew slowly realize they are in the vise of an impossible choice.
The premise unfolds in a way that’s unusually plain for Shyamalan. It lacks the loopy fantasy elements of Old, the comic-book heightening of Split and Glass, and the outright slapstick humor of The Visit, the found-footage horror that helped rebound his career in 2015. Knock at the Cabin is based on the novel The Cabin at the End of the World, by Paul G. Tremblay, and it retains most of that story’s unnerving, direct narrative. Leonard and his foreboding sidekicks initially seem like a cult entirely detached from reality. But as the day drags on, Leonard’s apocalyptic visions seem more and more plausible.
One of Shyamalan’s touchstones as a horror storyteller is his sincerity; he takes ludicrous concepts and somehow squeezes them into the realm of reality. That tonal trick hasn’t always worked—what sank films such as The Happening and Lady in the Water was how jarring the juxtaposition was between the ensembles’ earnest performances and the plots’ fundamental silliness. Knock at the Cabin avoids this problem partly through its deft casting, with Bautista serving as the most pivotal player. So much of the movie revolves around Leonard’s surreal monologues; the actor keeps a firm grasp on Leonard’s belief in his every word.
Bautista’s breakout performance came in Guardians of the Galaxy, in which he played an alien who always means exactly what he says—he’s from a planet without irony. The disarming authenticity he honed in that role makes him a particularly strong screen presence here, giving Leonard an aura of menace that extends beyond his imposing physical form (and his big bladed weapon). Leonard’s omen sounds patently absurd, and the main evidence he and his fellow attackers have to offer is their collective visions. But Leonard’s gentle exhortation that the only way forward involves violent death demands everyone’s attention precisely because he says it in such a measured, muted way.
Equally unsettling is the fact that the world actually does seem to be melting down around Eric and Andrew; Leonard points to reports of tsunamis, pandemics, and other cataclysms that I shan’t spoil as proof that his predictions are bubbling to life. But the cruel twist is that those kinds of horrible events play out on the news all the time, and Eric and Andrew’s desensitization fuels their denial. At the core of Shyamalan’s story is the idea that raising children in this world—where ocean levels are rising and ambient doom is almost always hovering in the background—is an inherently tragic project.
Shyamalan sprinkles in a few flashbacks of Eric and Andrew’s relationship, their struggle to adopt a child, and their resiliency. Those fleeting memories help clarify the stakes of their looming sacrifice. They also introduce a knotty angle that the film barely has time to explore but that I kept pondering after leaving the theater. Is Eric and Andrew’s fate entirely random, or have they been chosen because their relationship is so powerful? Shyamalan’s adoration for the dads and their sweetly introverted daughter is evidenced by scenes of genuine tenderness, and Groff’s performance is especially moving. But those touches also make the film’s final act all the more wrenching; it’s suffused with disaster and entirely devoid of winks to the camera.