Our leads are Eric and Andrew, a married couple who are vacationing in a remote Pennsylvania cabin with their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui, making her feature film debut). Eric and Andrew are played by Jonathan Groff (he of Hamilton and Mindhunter fame) and Ben Aldridge (who recently starred opposite Jim Parsons in the under-the-radar rom-com Spoiler Alert), and they’re the perfect grounding force for a film that very quickly strays into the psychological extreme.
The hulking Leonard (naturally played by Dave Bautista) leads a foursome of mysterious invaders who intrude on the family’s picturesque vacation. Although they seem to be remorseful when it comes to their mission, the group is unwavering, and resolute in what they came there to do.
Avoid trailers for Knock at the Cabin if you can. The premise of the film itself — being the reason that everything is happening — is much better as a surprise. Even though Shyamalan built his brand on surprises (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable gave him the unenviable reputation of being a director who always dabbles in “twist endings”), Knock at the Cabin seems weirdly averse to the shock factor, playing into what you might expect instead of subverting it. But perhaps that is the subversion — toying with expectation is always a tricky thing, especially when you’re an established genre filmmaker like Shyamalan, so I’ll give him props for branching out and experimenting with that type of storytelling. It may not be entirely outside of the box, but it’s far enough on the edge that it lives up to the entertainment level of Shyamalan’s projects of yesteryear.
That said, Knock at the Cabin is far from peak Shyamalan, but it’s tense and effective, giving us valuable emotional insight into every one of its few characters while maintaining an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty that leads to a subdued but intense climax. As always, he’s prioritized human drama and the psychological factor in pressurized decision-making, crafting a fascinating web that causes you to second-guess what’s been said and done time and again. Dave Bautista is doing a lot of the heavy lifting there, delivering his most empathetic and perhaps his best performance since he first turned to acting. The (intentionally) awkward humor and numerous extreme close-ups are also ever-present, serving as an indication that this is still classic M. Night.
The biggest surprise of my screening, however, was probably the Q&A moderator Pete Davidson (a last-minute replacement for Kid Cudi) telling M. Night that his favorite movie of the last decade is the controversial and notoriously gory Terrifier 2, before sharing a story of how he got a popcorn kernel lodged in his ear while watching Stuart Little (scripted, of course, by M. Night Shyamalan) at age six.
Believe the hype, folks. M. Night Shyamalan is back…not that he ever went anywhere.
Knock at the Cabin debuts in theaters tomorrow.