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Knock at the Cabin turns a home invasion into the ultimate trolley problem

M. Night Shyamalan’s new psychological horror turns the home invasion genre on its head to tell a story about outcasts with the power to save or destroy humanity.

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A muscular bald man with arm tattoos wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and glasses. Behind him is a short woman with dark hair wearing a black button-down, jeans, and a shocked look on her face. Behind her is another woman wearing a yellow button-down and jeans and clasping her hands together while staring at something in concern.
Dave Bautista, Abby Quinn, and Nikki Amuka-Bird in Knock at the Cabin.
Image: Universal Pictures

Knock at the Cabin, M. Night Shyamalan’s new home invasion thriller based on Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World, will mean very different things to audiences depending on the personal beliefs they bring to the film. By design, many elements of the movie’s doom-laden parable are open to interpretation, and it often feels as though Knock at the Cabin might actually want you to pause for a moment to debate with someone else about what’s happening. What there’s little question about, though, is that, with this project, Shyamalan’s working somewhere near the height of his powers to remind us all that there’s more to him than twist endings.

Very much like the original novel, Knock at the Cabin tells the story of Andrew (Ben Aldridge), his husband Eric (Jonathan Groff), and their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) as the small family heads out to a remote rental in the woods for a quiet, intimate vacation. The wilderness the trio journey into is as beautiful as it is serene — so much so that Andrew and Eric aren’t all that worried about Wen wandering off by herself to catch grasshoppers while the two of them relax. But when a hulking, uncannily gentle man named Leonard (Dave Bautista) suddenly appears from the woods imploring Wen to trust him, she has the sense to flee in terror before he even fully explains the awful reason he’s tracked her family down.

It’s not that Leonard and the three other people he’s been traveling with are stalking Andrew, Eric, and Wen, per se — at least not in the traditional sense. The color-coordinated quartet of strangers barely know one another, let alone the family whose door they’re beating down as Knock at the Cabin starts to unfold. But the strangers are all very convinced they’re on a mission to either save or destroy the world and that Wen’s family has to play a key role in deciding humanity’s fate.

Knock at the Cabin’s very much a thriller in the vein of classics like The Last House on the Left and The Strangers. But it quickly begins to take on a distressing Mother!-like edge as Leonard, a nurse named Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a waitress named Adriane (Abby Quinn), and a redhead with anger issues named Redmond (Rupert Grint) try to explain why they’ve all traveled from different parts of the country to see Wen, Eric, and Andrew. Put simply, each of them is convinced that the apocalypse is nigh and that they’ve been tasked with finding the one family chosen to determine whether all of existence will be destroyed or saved by the family’s decision to willingly kill a member of their unit other than themselves.

There are complex ideological ideas woven throughout Knock at the Cabin’s story, which Shyamalan himself reworked and expanded upon from a script by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman. But one of the simplest questions it asks — what would you do — is also one of its most important because of how much Knock at the Cabin really wants you to try to project yourself into the lives of its characters.

Rather than let its four emissaries of the fall simply loom as terrifying and mysterious enigmas, Knock at the Cabin gives you small glimpses into their lives that are just enough to make you start to see them as victims and question how much of what they’re saying is true. Leonard’s fondness for Wen and his gentle manner with her make it seem like he might actually be a passionate school teacher and coach the way he tells Andrew and Eric he is. But the strangely beautiful yet ghastly homemade weapons he and the others all cling to with an almost religious devotion make that hard to believe, especially once Knock at the Cabin starts showing you how they’re meant to be used and what they do.

If you’ve seen any of Knock at the Cabin’s trailers, then you have some idea of the large-scale catastrophes that begin to pop up as the movie intensifies, making it seem like Leonard and the others might be telling the truth. But what none of the advertisements have been able to effectively convey is how much of Knock at the Cabin’s ability to keep you gripped and make you feel existential terror boils down to the film’s cast delivering a series of haunting performances that feel — for lack of a better word — very Shyamalan-esque.

It takes a while for it to become clear, but Bautista, Amuka-Bird, Quinn, and Grint each embody different kinds of fear and hope about the future, and the movie leaves it to you to decide whether what you’re seeing are people in the throes of madness or ordinary folks called to serve a higher purpose. Groff and Aldridge play Eric and Andrew with a banal wholesomeness the movie knowingly acknowledges as it chronicles their past in flashbacks meant to endear them to you and make you wonder if they’re being targeted specifically because they’re gay men.

There are enough moments throughout the movie where Eric and Andrew talk about being persecuted for their difference and how humanity might not deserve saving that Knock at the Cabin almost plays like an artful spin on Marvel’s apocalyptic X-Men comics. It’s a bit strange at first to think, but it’s hard not to feel that way as the movie builds to its dramatic climax and starts trying to explicitly spell a bunch of its themes out in a way that smacks of last-minute notes from the studio.

In the grand tradition of Shyamalan, Knock at the Cabin will likely be a divisive film. But it’s also undoubtedly one of his tightest and most cleanly executed — something made all the more impressive by how much it departs from the novel. Old fans and Servant-heads alike know that M. Night Shyamalan never really left, but Knock at the Cabin feels like it just might convince those not in the know that he’s back.

Knock at the Cabin hits theaters on February 3rd.