M. Night Shyamalan adapts Paul G. Tremblay’s bleak end-of-the-world novel with an excellent Dave Bautista as a conflicted antagonist.
In the strange 21st-century rise of conspiracy theories and cult-like behavior, the most frightening aspect of it is that some people really are true believers. Certainly, there are those who are just trolling, claiming to believe in insane things like Democrats eating Christian babies just to get a rise out of people. But what about those who are serious, who aren’t even textbook “crazy,” just normal people who at some point began to truly believe in chemtrails, or that everything that happens in the world is secretly orchestrated by an underground race of lizard people, or that the end times are here? What if they don’t want to believe these things, but they can’t help it? How do you reason with that?
And what if they’re not wrong? What if there’s a tiny, infinitesimal but nagging chance that they’re right?
M. Night Shyamalan takes on the Apocalypse with Knock at the Cabin, adding some ’90s stylistic touches to an all-too-timely home invasion thriller about a family subjected to the seemingly insane delusions of a group of strangers. Based on Paul G. Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World (which, full disclosure, I have not read), it features Dave Bautista as an antagonist who’s both terrifying and sympathetic at the same time, and may offer some interesting (if not uncomfortable) post-viewing conversation for audiences.
Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) are vacationing in a remote cabin in the New Jersey Pine Barrens (not far from where this writer grew up!) with their young adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). All seems peaceful until Wen is approached, seemingly out of nowhere, by Leonard (Bautista), whose friendly, perhaps overly familiar demeanor suggests something sinister is happening. There is, but not what you think: Leonard, along with Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint), all of them bearing medieval-style weapons, hold Wen and her fathers captive in the cabin. Leonard and the others were brought together by shared visions of the end of the world, and the belief that the only way it can be stopped is if a member of Eric and Andrew’s little family is sacrificed.
No one in Leonard’s party can make the choice for them, it has to be done willingly, and every time Eric or Andrew refuses, a “plague” is set upon the world, starting the clock for it all to come to an end. Eric and Andrew are forced to not just try to escape with their lives, but struggle with the possibility that what Leonard and the others believe may actually be coming to pass, and what that means for them.
If that’s a thumbnail sketch at best of the plot, it’s merely to avoid spoilers. As with many of Shyamalan’s films, an often labored, occasionally silly plot is sold on strong performances from his actors, and here they’re particularly effective. Leonard and the others seem absolutely sincere in their beliefs, terrified at what they must do, and grief-stricken about the process. These are not the same kind of mocking, hateful “true believers” as those that stormed the Capitol on January 6th. They don’t want to be there any more than Eric or Andrew want them there (and the fact that there’s no reason it has to be them specifically makes it all the worse), but there’s simply no alternative.
Relying often on tight close-ups, the shots of Leonard, Eric, and the others tearfully trying to process the unthinkable are at least as haunting as apocalyptic images of planes falling out of the sky. These are all normal people with seemingly normal lives, tormented by the same dreams of death and destruction over and over. As someone who experiences recurring, often unsettling dreams (and not just of the “oh no I forgot the big math test” variety), for this writer it poses a chilling question: would discovering that other people have those same dreams be comforting, or a sign that something beyond our comprehension and control is happening? How much would it take to convince me that these aren’t merely images my brain is piecemealing from my subconscious, but rather depictions of real-life things that haven’t happened yet? They say that dreams can predict the future, but what if that future is relentlessly bleak?
On the flip side, what about the choice Eric and Andrew are forced to make? Their initial refusal is because they simply don’t believe anything Leonard and the others are saying, but as they begin to waver on that, the question is whether the world is worth saving in the first place. Glimpses of their lives together before the fateful trip to the cabin are shown, depicting them trying to exist as a family in a world that rejects them, where they can’t even speak in a bar without being harassed, where they have to lie about who they are to each other. Why does the world deserve a sacrifice from them, when it’s taken so much already?
But, as I said, I don’t want to give way too much. Die-hard atheists will likely find much to grumble about with Knock at the Cabin. But if you’ve ever wavered a tiny bit on the question “what if,” it’ll get under your skin, and make you hope you never find yourself on either side of the table in this situation: either the bearer of bad tidings, or the only one who can stop it, and in the end no one wins.
Knock at the Cabin opens in theaters February 3rd.