M. Night Shyamalan’s projects are typically shrouded in secrecy, so it was surprising to find out that his latest venture, Knock at the Cabin, would be an adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s acclaimed horror novel The Cabin at the End of the World. Well, Shyamalan and Tremblay seem like a match made in heaven, as the premise and Shyamalan’s maximalist filmmaking tendencies go hand-in-hand to create a genuinely thrilling cinematic experience.
Knock at the Cabin follows a family who, while on vacation, is presented with a difficult decision that could put the fate of all of humanity in their hands. It’s not a direct adaptation of Tremblay’s work, with some substantial differences between how the story unfolds, but Shyamalan has taken Tremblay’s core premise and ran with it in a new direction.
In terms of pure cinematic craft, this is arguably Shyamalan’s best film in over a decade. Shyamalan has made plenty of films on a bigger budget, and a few on a lower budget, but the reported $20 million spent on Knock at the Cabin seems to be the sweet spot. The cinematography, sound design, production design, and special effects are firing on all levels to immerse us in the isolated world which he is creating.
Shyamalan also manages to keep the tension on high throughout the entire runtime. Apart from a few flashbacks — inserted primarily to provide characterization, but also as a reprieve to some of the film’s most intense moments — the film trucks along through its 100 minutes. It’s dread-inducing yet fun in the way that is what Shyamalan does best.
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Dave Bautista continues to prove that he has exceptional chops as an actor. Despite the characteristically stilted dialogue common in Shyamalan’s scripts, Bautista manages to infuse such a believable level of emotion into the character. It’s a role that could have been utterly unlikable, but the surprising level of empathy and humanity that Bautista oozes blurs the lines impressively well.
The character development in the film is certainly very interesting, largely owing to the central metaphor. The script by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman takes these common tropes and spins them on their head in a way that is incredibly satisfying, albeit a bit more straightforwardly allegorical than one would expect.
And while the film does have that surface-level symbolism, the part of the film that is somewhat frustrating is its lack of depth. There are plenty of directions in which this story could have been taken to give it meaning, but the film settles for the obvious and simple. One could argue that this simplicity serves Shyamalan — as some of his more ambitious swings have created his biggest misses (see The Happening) — but it also feels like a waste of the potential of Tremblay’s source material.
Although it can be frustratingly shallow at times, Knock at the Cabin is one of M. Night Shyamalan’s best films since his heyday in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Formally impressive and captivating, even if it is a bit too straightforward for its own good, this is exactly the type of nail-biting popcorn thriller that put Shyamalan on the map in the first place.
Knock at the Cabin hits theaters on February 3.
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