‘Knock at the Cabin’: Politest home-invasion thriller you’ll ever see
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I’ll say one thing for “Knock at the Cabin”: M. Night Shyamalan may have made the most polished – and most provocative – home invasion horror movie you’ve ever seen.
The four strangers who show up uninvited on a rustic getaway in the Pennsylvania woods, spouting biblical pronouncements about Armageddon and carrying creepy homemade weapons (which they call “tools”) knock before bursting into Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their adopted daughter Wen (an adorable Kristen Cui). And that’s after their leader, Leonard – played by Dave Bautista, in soft giant mode, wearing nerdy, wired glass that looks too small for his rock-like head – introduced himself to Wen in the front yard, even going so far as to help him catch grasshoppers.
I’m not saying the whole storyline isn’t scary: Bautista’s hulking, tattooed physique creates an unsettling contrast to Wen’s petite frame, who isn’t quite 8 years old. And when Leonard’s accomplices – excuse me, his “associates” – burst into the house and one of them (Nikki Amuka-Bird) punches Eric in the head, severely concussing him, she immediately identifies as a nurse, providing first aid. What the hell is going on here, for God’s sake?
God may have a lot more to do with this gathering than meets the eye. Leonard, a teacher/bartender from Chicago, was guided here by mystical visions to deliver a prophecy. The same goes for Sabrina from Amuka-Bird, who came from California; Adriane (Abby Quinn), a short-term cook from Washington, DC; and Redmond (Rupert Grint), a Massachusetts gas company employee who is the only grump of the bunch. The world is about to end – by tsunami, disease, storm and a blizzard of plane crashes – unless the cabin dwellers, for reasons that are never explained because they are, quite frankly, cuckoos – sacrifice one of themselves.
Call this unholy foursome, who didn’t know each other before meeting in an internet chat room, the Average Four Joes of the Q-Anon Apocalypse.
Based on the book “The Hut at the End of the World” by Paul Tremblay (whose unsettling plot was toned down slightly by Shyamalan and co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman), “Knock” is pleasantly atmospheric and tense. It’s also moderately bloody, but intruders clean up after them.
Shyamalan applies our current paranoia here to great effect. To all who feel, at times, so overwhelmed by the drumbeat of climate catastrophe, economic collapse, crime, mass shootings and terrorism, deadly viruses and political polarization that they feel as the apocalypse is upon us, “Knock at the Cabin” will resonate powerfully.
But there are problems with this story. If Leonard and his team want to save humanity, they don’t do a very good job of expressing their beliefs to the people they need to convince the most, let alone us. With Eric concussed and not thinking clearly, Andrew is the only adult in the room who seems to have his head screwed tight, representing the audience’s point of view: These people are crazy. But Shyamalan is clearly inviting us to question that assumption, as horrific calamities, seen on cabin television, begin to pile up. There is also a suggestion that homophobia may have played a role, for at least one of the four intruders, in selecting this particular cabin to terrorize.
Shyamalan keeps things deliberately vague and ambiguous — which actually contributes to the mood of delicious instability — but it’s also frustrating: if Leonard, a teacher, after all, tries to argue that he’s not not crazy, it fails.
I don’t know if that’s a problem or a plus, or maybe both. Bautista is Awesome: Leonard is a desperate, driven, and heartbroken man because he believes he must do something unthinkable – or, rather, force others to do one – in order to achieve a greater good. Ultimately, “Knock at the Cabin” is about the unruliness of two powerful human impulses: altruism and self-preservation.
That’s a lot of thematic baggage, maybe even too much, for a home invasion thriller.
A. In theaters in the region. Contains violence and foul language. 100 minutes.