Love him or hate him, there isn't another writer/director like M. Night Shyamalan working today. His characters speak with an idiosyncratically awkward cadence and vernacular that make everything feel just slightly off. He uses the camera uniquely to tell the story, rather than simply to capture it, framing his dialogue in pointedly abstract ways, sometimes uncomfortably close. His screenplays dance around the absurd and ridiculous with unwavering sincerity, often creating an otherworldly, dreamlike quality. And then there're his patented twists.
Does it always work? No. The Happening is one of the most terrifically bad films I've ever seen — an absolute trainwreck of all his worst tendencies. Most of the human race hasn't forgiven him for what he did to The Last Airbender. But his 2004 mystery drama The Village is one of my all-time favourite films, bursting with heart and intrigue. The guy takes big swings, and sometimes he misses (he's been self-financing his films since 2015's The Visit — M. Night at peak bonkers — so he can do whatever he wants). But the trade-off for the massive risks is that, sometimes, he knocks it out of the park. Knock at the Cabin is Shyamalan's best film in nearly twenty years.
Based on Paul. G. Tremblay's 2018 novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, the film almost exclusively takes place inside the remote titular holiday home. Wen (Kristen Cui) is catching grasshoppers when she's approached by an enormous, tattooed and gentle man who identifies himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista). While trying to befriend her, he mentions that some "colleagues" are going to arrive soon to ask her family to make a difficult choice. Spooked, Wen runs to warn her adoptive fathers, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge, who gives the film's best performance), about these imminent strangers. Redmond (Rupert Grint), Adriane (Abby Quinn), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and Leonard, using peculiar, makeshift weapons, eventually force their way into the cabin, tying up Eric and Andrew. Now with a captive audience, the four reveal their chilling task: they have been chosen, through visions, to instruct this family that one of the three must sacrifice themselves to prevent the apocalypse. Refusal will result in dire and shocking consequences.
Bizarre and outrageous plots like this often feel quite at home in a novel (Stephen King's seem the most relevant examples), as the reader can fill in a lot of the details themselves. In a medium like film, they can be harder to swallow. Less, to an extent, can be left to suggestion. Shyamalan's visual approach marries perfectly with Tremblay's heightened register because he allows the camera to move and focus in unpredictable ways. On a couple of occasions, the camera becomes fixed to a moving object — our POV mirrors the back of Grint's head as he gets beaten up; the trajectory of an axe as it's raised and swung. It's an unnerving and immersive effect.
Shyamalan positions his actors in unconventional places, disorienting the viewer, sometimes obscuring the speaker altogether. My mind was constantly working to analyse and process what I was seeing, resulting in my unrelenting engagement. I was never bored, and not a single second was wasted. Shyamalan has this efficiently directed and paced within an inch of its life.
The performances are uniformly strong — it's a committed, unified ensemble. Bautista's Leonard is enigmatic and emotionally centred, hinting at a man with an unenviable task, doing his best to keep it together under impossible circumstances. The quartet of intruders do an impressively nuanced job of conveying urgency and regret simultaneously — their task is a burden, but an allegedly essential one.
Cui pulled me out of the action at times, sometimes obviously taking cues from off-camera, but her work in the prologue set up the film's tone beautifully. Groff and Aldridge are the film's MVPs, believably creating an alternating sense of confusion and disbelief, thoroughly underlined by Aldridge in Andrew's absolute refusal to acknowledge anything other than coincidence. The film's conclusion is not an easy sell, but they both manage it without descending into melodrama. It deviates considerably from the novel's denouement, and I wasn't expecting to find it so moving.
As inseparable as James Newton Howard's sound-world was from his early work, Shayamalan has found his most sympathetic sonic partner in years in Icelandic composer, Herdís Stefánsdóttir. Her abrasive electronic score perfectly synchronises with his erratic shifts in tone, carrying heart-pounding dread and tentative curiosity in tandem. Knock at the Cabin is often as exciting to listen to as it is to watch. There are even some neat, fleeting string references (probably unintentional) to Howard's The Village score, which is a smirk-inducing treat for eagle-eared viewers.
It's not controversial to call Shayamalan's films divisive. Many of them provoke an emotional reaction in me that cause others to giggle mockingly instead. The inexplicably subjective nature of film quality seems to be amplified by his work. Knock at the Cabin is a stiflingly tense thriller with an assured visual style that explores some important themes, especially around sacrifice and faith (common ground for Shyamalan, and something for another article entirely). Conversely, it's possible you'll find it laughably self-serious and preachy (oft-cited criticisms of his work). One thing's for sure — it's unlike anything I've seen for a while, and I'd prefer a dedicated, risk-taking auteur making passion projects any day of the week. M. Night Shayamalan rules, and so does this movie.
Knock at the Cabin is in cinemas now.