M. Night Shyamalan’s Strange Renaissance

M. Night Shyamalan’s Strange Renaissance

Empty Threats

M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin.


In the opening minutes of Knock at the Cabin, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie, four strangers show up uninvited at a secluded Pennsylvania cabin occupied by two men and their adopted daughter. Dressed in jeans and tucked-in button-down shirts, the strangers could be door-to-door evangelists or the stars of a Wrangler ad. Their actual purpose is more sinister: They carry edged weapons that look sourced from a medieval armory.

They don’t immediately barge into the cabin, though—the first of a number of curious developments in the movie. Instead, like vampires, they ask to be let in, a request that the cabin’s inhabitants understandably decline. Tension builds and violence looms as the parties volley threats and appeals at each other through the locked door, sparking intrigue as much as concern. Robbers don’t typically knock and politely request entry, so who are these strange people, and what do they want?

The events that follow answer this question only obliquely. Ostensibly a home-invasion film, Knock at the Cabin reveals itself to be a morality play about trust, faith, and sacrifice. Shyamalan’s intimidating strangers are more like missionaries, their motives shaped by the contradictory power of belief to obscure the truth as well as reveal it. The movie, which is based on Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World, is one of a handful of adaptations in Shyamalan’s lengthy filmography, but the film bears the director’s signature fascination with domestic bliss and the forces and fears that threaten it. He is a sentimentalist who delights in testing the resolve of families and basking in their resilience, a disposition perfectly suited for Tremblay’s parable about choice.

Knock at the Cabin is notably darker than Shyamalan’s standard fare, but the shift in tone doesn’t enliven a predilection for storytelling that’s more interested in puzzles than in people: Shyamalan’s screenplays typically expel all concerns and emotions not directly related to his overbearing premises. Ever the craftsman, he knows how to make these hermetic films visually ornate, but they never become hospitable—to pleasure, to logic, to whimsy. Yet audiences keep coming back, fueling an unlikely career revival for Shyamalan that’s far more zombified than it appears.

Once the intruders breach the cabin, the movie gets under way. The family—Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and 7-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui)—resist the forced entry but are subdued after a scuffle leaves Eric with a concussion. Led by the imposing but gentle Leonard (Dave Bautista), the intruders nervously introduce themselves one by one as if at a workplace mixer and then make a bizarre pitch to their captives: If they agree to sacrifice a member of their family, the end of the world—an apocalypse expected to start on the following day—will be prevented. The proposal is immediately rebuffed, but like a game show host, Leonard calmly explains that it has to happen and then adds more stipulations: He and his colleagues cannot choose who dies, nor can they carry out the murder. Additionally, every time the family declines to provide an offering, humanity will be judged further.

Leonard doesn’t say who will issue this judgment, why this binary choice is necessary, or whether he agrees with such punitive bloodletting, but his conviction is firm. He insists that if the family doesn’t submit to these terms, a reckoning on a biblical scale will assail the earth in the form of floods, plague, fire, and darkness. He has seen these horrors in visions, he tells them, an account corroborated by his companions Redmond (Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Adriane (Abby Quinn), who have also had these visions of Armageddon and felt compelled to assemble and try to stop it. It’s a clever conceit, actually: Could they be the heroes of this story?

Eric and Andrew poke holes in their claims, accusing the group of psychosis and anti-gay bigotry. Leonard’s group offers perfunctory assurances that these charges are false; in fact, Sabrina says, “We don’t have one homophobic bone in our bodies,” one of the film’s few jokes. (As the movie progresses, the dialogue grows more utilitarian.) The husbands’ united front underscores their history together, which is fleshed out in flashbacks that show them parenting and experiencing homophobia. This backstory is tender, but the details amount to set decoration, never complicating the social dynamics playing out in the cabin.

Once the bare-bones exposition is out of the way and the characters have been vaguely sketched out, the invaders spring into action, grabbing their weapons and compelling the family to make a decision. Eric and Andrew still refuse, so Leonard declares humanity judged. Then Redmond kneels before them, dons a white mask, and is bludgeoned to death by his comrades. Why? Who knows—Leonard hasn’t included this part of the ritual in his presentation.

To prove that humanity will now be punished as promised, Leonard turns on the television (which curiously still works despite his group cutting the cabin’s phone lines). A special report interrupts an air fryer commercial to announce that Hawaii and Oregon have been struck by a tsunami. Is this proof of the intruders’ claims, or an elaborate ploy? Who is really being held hostage here: the family or these coerced messengers?

The movie finds its rhythm as both parties wrestle with these questions, but even as the film takes on a new dimension, it can’t conceal the emptiness of the premise. Although Shyamalan tries to inject uncertainty into the story by withholding which party is correct and letting both sides make their case, the tension is never really convincing. Nor are the brief moments of action. The hostages attempt to escape but are basically passive, voicing their doubts about the intruders’ tale but then failing to act in critical moments. Meanwhile, the captors commit to their grim task with slavish devotion: Any doubts or second thoughts are quickly pushed aside; they just wait for confirmation of their inscrutable beliefs, a fixture among the characters in Shyamalan’s movies.

Knock at the Cabin arrives during a renaissance of sorts for the filmmaker. Once mocked for his twist endings and reviled for unprofitable disasters like Lady in the Water (2006), The Last Airbender (2010), and After Earth (2013), Shyamalan has since found his footing as an indie filmmaker and television showrunner. Headlines regularly and warmly declare that he has made a comeback, and a cult following earnestly defends his films. Shyamalan’s admirers see his commitment to writing, directing, and financing these independent films as a rebuff to Hollywood’s suffocating embrace of sequels and remakes. In their eyes, his winding career path marks him as an auteur dedicated to experimenting.

This reassessment isn’t entirely off-base. Though he’s released just one movie—2016’s Split—as tactile and compelling as his cult classics The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000), Shyamalan has continually proved to be a scrappy filmmaker capable of putting butts in seats, a virtue at a time when theater audiences are dwindling. Yet despite that winning box-office record and his reputation as a maverick, his storytelling has grown increasingly narrow, confined to cramped rooms and provincial themes. Of course, Shyamalan views that smallness as an asset rather than a flaw. “I pay for the movies and we do them with as small a budget as possible,” he recently told The Guardian. “That allows me to take unusual swings, both in the stories that I’m telling and in the way I’m telling them.”

But Knock at the Cabin shows that “swings” don’t really matter if they can’t connect; the film doesn’t feel especially defined by a point of view or aesthetic identity. Like the beach vacation thriller Old (2021) before it, Knock at the Cabin does little with its confined setting. The cabin has multiple rooms, a deck, a basement, a wrap-around porch, and a tree house outside it, but the bulk of the film takes place in the living room where the family is held captive. The space reveals nothing of note about them or their captors, who all remain opaque despite the frequent close-ups of their faces. Shyamalan seems to want the strength of the performances to charge the space, and to their credit, everyone—especially Bautista—brings gravitas and passion to an otherwise sterile film.

Shyamalan has again written a story that depends on his characters’ extraction from the currents and rhythms of the world, a setup at odds with the idea that the fate of humanity is at stake. It is telling that so many of his films center on the nuclear family, an institution that, even when queer and multiracial, sustains and protects itself by retreating inward. A more curious filmmaker might probe such barriers and explore the worlds within these sanctums, perhaps connecting them to collective fears and unfair choices only gestured at here.

But Shyamalan has moved on from such imaginative pursuits, a resignation captured by the fact that he visualizes a deity’s destruction of the planet as a cable news program. As much as Shyamalan tries to cloak Knock at the Cabin’s central conflict in metaphysical horror and familial crisis, disbelief persists: The viewer is always aware that they are watching another trite and incurious M. Night Shyamalan film.

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