“Knock at the Cabin review: M. Night Shyamalan ventures into dystopian territory within a woodland setting.”

The filmmaker responsible for “Old,” “Split,” and “The Sixth Sense” is back with an intriguing yet underdeveloped dystopian thriller set at the end of the world.

What fresh apocalypse is this? In a world already keenly aware of impending doomsday scenarios, it’s increasingly challenging to distinguish between the myriad fictional dystopias presented to us in books, movies, and TV shows. However, delving into apocalyptic themes is a familiar territory for filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who has been exploring the concept for over two decades. With his latest endeavor, “Knock at the Cabin,” based on a bestselling novel by Paul Tremblay—an author whose work even Stephen King has acknowledged as chilling—Shyamalan faces the weight of heightened expectations.

The stark and eerie premise of “Knock” holds the promise of intrigue: a seemingly idyllic family enjoying a peaceful weekend in the countryside encounters four mysterious strangers at their door. Given M. Night Shyamalan’s reputation as the master of cinematic twists, one can’t help but anticipate a deeper plan at play. Indeed, Shyamalan marks the spot with careful casting choices: the loving parents, Eric portrayed by Jonathan Groff and Andrew played by Ben Aldridge from “Fleabag,” and their adopted daughter Wen, portrayed by Kristen Cui, who we see in tender flashbacks, hails from China, sporting a distinctive pink scar beneath her nose.

In a tense encounter, Wen finds herself approached by Leonard, an imposing figure who introduces himself with care. Despite her wariness, she cautiously engages with his inquiries about her scar and her family situation—knowing well the cautionary advice against talking to strangers. However, Leonard’s gentle demeanor and persistence, coupled with the presence of his three armed companions—Redmond portrayed by Rupert Grint, Sabrina portrayed by Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Ardiane portrayed by Abby Quinn—introduce an unsettling dynamic to the situation.

Their makeshift weapons resemble something from a post-apocalyptic crafting session in Mad Max, and their message is urgent yet resolute: unless one of the three bewildered hostages complies with their demand for a voluntary sacrifice, they warn of impending cataclysmic events. They prophesy that the seas will surge, divine retribution will scorch the earth, and pestilence and chaos will envelop the world in eternal darkness. Understandably, Eric and Andrew vehemently oppose this proposal. What evidence do these wild-eyed individuals, who claim to be ordinary educators, cooks, and healthcare workers, possess to substantiate their apocalyptic claims, other than their insistence on shared visions of Biblical doom?

This is where “Knock” begins to diverge from the novel and, reportedly, the Black-Listed screenplay that Shyamalan extensively rewrote. It’s also the point where the story loses much of its momentum, despite maintaining a palpable tension in the room—according to the visions, for each refusal, another individual must die. Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s script often fails to provide coherent explanations or address significant questions, leaving a cabin filled with terrified individuals engaged in tense whisper-yelling matches, only to repeat themselves when they feel their voices aren’t heard the first time.

While the panic and repetition depicted in the film may reflect reality—few people, when confronted with sheer terror, exhibit brilliance in negotiation or transform into action heroes—it results in frustratingly opaque filmmaking when crucial plot elements are overlooked. Additionally, Shyamalan’s substantial alterations to the latter half of the narrative imbue the story with a somewhat beatific, quasi-religious tone. The original ending, which was apparently too bleak and ambiguous, perhaps deservedly so for mainstream horror, may have been better suited for a director with less established credentials.

What remains are a few sincere and compelling performances, such as Bautista’s portrayal of the gentle giant and Groff’s depiction of a fundamentally decent man struggling with unfathomable decisions. However, the film’s palpable sense of dread dissipates with the overly neat conclusion. Shyamalan may intend to convey something profound about faith, environmental devastation, or the erosion of social cohesion (could the vigilante group’s actions be driven by pure homophobia, as Andrew suspects?). Yet, these themes are largely obscured by sentimentality, leaving behind a lingering feeling of the potentially superior, more complex film that could have emerged.

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