Our choices make our destiny. A family of three, fathers Andrew (Ben Aldridge), Eric (Jonathan Groff), and seven-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) are taking in a quiet vacation tucked away at a cabin within the woods of rural Pennsylvania. Wen, interested in becoming an entomologist when she grows up, goes about her day collecting grasshoppers and other insects until a large creature approaches. His name? Leonard (Dave Bautista), who makes pleasant conversation with Wen and surprisingly, the soft-spoken man doesn’t seem to have bad intentions.

At least, until he reveals to her why he’s there. He’s not alone. As he shares his intentions, three makeshift weapon-toting individuals appear in the distance. Leonard shares that he’s not happy about it, but he and his companions Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint) are there to…prevent the apocalypse from happening. They cannot directly interfere, but they must see it to the end that this destined family makes a choice and sacrifices one of their lives so that humanity can go on. Oh, and there is little time to decide, a day tops, as the proverbial doomsday clock is already at 11:59.

If one were to look up “divisive” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, you might see M. Night Shyamalan’s photo. The circular arc of the director’s career is common knowledge, kicking off his arrival into the mainstream with The Sixth Sense and continuing that up with extremely well received follow-ups all the way to Lady in the Water. From there, it would be nearly a decade consisting of the question “Has he lost it?” with each release up until 2015’s light return to form in The Visit, leading another surge in popularity (cemented with Split) that dipped when Glass capped his superhero trilogy and was followed by a well-marketed yet clunky and unintentionally funny in spots Old. Within different levels on each side, the pendulum has swung from phenom to pariah and back again.

Even in his super lean popularity days, M. Night still was able to show off his technical prowess, and I’d argue that Knock at the Cabin is his best collective work behind the camera since his “Shyamalanissance.” A heavy dose of close-ups shots are prevalent here, beginning with the first five minutes setting the stage for the rest of the runtime. At first, it feels like a curious decision, but in deploying this, Shyamalan along with cinematographers Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer quickly get across the grave gravity of the situation his main protagonists find themselves in, and the decision allows him to leave some of the more graphic moments to imagination, raising the tension. The close-up isn’t the only shot he has in the bag; news broadcasts function as “big budget” moments serving as our bridge to gauging what is or isn’t happening, and the occasional rack-focus adds an additional edge within the confined space. Icelandic composer Herdís Stefánsdóttir produces a rustic, somber score to complement the movie adequately.

As most of his movies tend to operate, Shyamalan serves as the sole writer for Knock at the Cabin. “KatC” is also the second straight production he has adapted from an existing novel. No other counterbalances in place almost always means that the writer/director can fully see their vision through to the end, with the downside being that sometimes, every idea or line of dialogue existing in the movie maybe shouldn’t, or should be run through a filter, delved deeper, etc. Knock at the Cabin’s straightforwardness is both its greatest strength and largest weakness. It puts rightful focus on a very game cast (more shortly in a second) and precise direction, leaning on themes like faith and fate that have long engrossed M. Night.

But up to a point, there’s not a “third level,” in the sense that (avoiding spoilers) anyone with a rudimentary understanding of religious scripture can likely put together what represents what in the first 10-15 minutes of runtime. That’s before on-the-nose dialogue. Sizable changes were made from the pages to the adaption seen on the silver screen when it comes to what stands as the final act. There are pluses (streamlining) and minuses (slightly more nuance, less predictability) towards the story direction Shyamalan chose to take, and each side would have reason to be right in their defense. Perhaps no true satisfying ending was in play whether conceived or existing.

One thing is clear: No matter the choice taken in script direction, this is not a film that works if there’s no Bautista present. “Big Dave” as he was nicknamed at times in his wrestling days is big “damn, he’s turned into a legitimately layered actor capable of a lot” in this one. The range he’s shown in many roles following his breakout in Guardians of the Galaxy was not a fluke; he makes Leonard his own, to the effectiveness that it is hard to imagine anyone else who has the physicality, the look, the assuredness, and the sensitivity to pull this off. Groff, Aldridge, and a debuting Cui have important roles to play and play them well, but they’re able to shine because Bautista is so impressive.

The biggest twist found here? Probably the fact that I can’t see this movie being meme’d like so many of M. Night’s recent efforts. Knock at the Cabin probably represents where Shyamalan is best these days—not perfect, but best—in very contained, low frills, features.


Photo credits go to thewrap.com, yahoo.com, and slashfilm.com

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