How M. Night Shyamalan’s Worldview Has Changed From ‘The Village’ to ‘Knock at the Cabin’ (Commentary)

Shyamalan’s films, 19 years apart, both find him speaking to timely events in different ways

"Knock at the Cabin"

“Knock at the Cabin,” the latest film from director M. Night Shyamalan, is a thought-provoking (if overly hopeful) exploration of faith, hope and how too often as a society we’re determined to make sense of things, even when certain dots just don’t end up connecting. It’s a feature that feels very 2023, with disinformation running rampant on social media and in the news. And in a way, the film feels like an extension of Shyamalan’s 2004 feature “The Village,” which saw him commenting on a post-9/11 America, yet it’s one that doesn’t seem to hit as hard.

NOTE: Spoilers for “Knock at the Cabin” follow below.

In 2004, director M. Night Shyamalan released his sixth feature film, “The Village.” The movie had a lot riding on it, especially considering Shyamalan was in the midst of a hot streak since his 1999 feature “The Sixth Sense” secured six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. In that time, films like “Unbreakable” and “Signs” had critical and commercial appeal, and established early internet discourse for Shyamalan’s penchant for twists.

And while “The Village” would gross $256 million worldwide in the summer of 2004, to be on the internet during that time was to presume that the director had stumbled. Both critics and online discourse criticized the film, particularly for what Roger Ebert called an “anticlimax” of an ending. But was it an anticlimax? Or just a movie in the right place at the wrong time?

“The Village” certainly feels like a post-9/11 movie. Where movies in the three years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had responded with an “America, f–k yeah” attitude (to quote “Team America: World Police,” released the same year as “The Village”), Shyamalan focused his film on people’s desperate need to insulate themselves from the horrors of the world, so much so that they conjure up villains to keep people in line. In this case, a small group of like-minded individuals living in modern-day Pennsylvania creates a 19th-century community and crafts a legend of monsters in the woods to keep the younger generations within the community’s walls.

For Shyamalan, there’s a bitter irony in that a group of white people would retreat back to the turn of the century to find a better way of living, yet are surprised that violence has the ability to invade their town. The attack on town member Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) sparks the film’s second act while commenting that too often violence is committed by institutions and people known rather than bizarre, fanciful (and possibly non-existent) others.

The M. Night of 2004 is not the one we’re seeing in 2023 with “Knock at the Cabin.” If anything, the changes to Paul G. Tremblay’s book, “A Cabin at the End of the World,” soften the narrative to a film that plays like a fantasy. Where “The Village” felt like it was commenting on the world as it was, and it took us a few years to figure that out, “Knock at the Cabin” wants to comment on 2023 but seems afraid to go too far.

Shyamalan is tackling similar territory. Like “The Village,” “Knock at the Cabin” is about humanity’s desire to avoid danger through isolation, in this case lead characters Andrew and Eric (Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff, respectively) being tasked with deciding which member of their family to sacrifice to save humanity, according to invading strangers.

But in the film’s world, the deep questions of faith versus coincidence don’t hit as hard when we, too often, see on social media people bringing up correlation that doesn’t necessarily equal causation. Andrew certainly feels like the voice of reason that says the four people who invade their cabin might have crafted a conspiracy that isn’t exactly there, but when Eric is willing to sacrifice himself, the movie seems to agree with them; the apocalypse is nigh.

There’s a far more hopeful message in “Knock at the Cabin” compared to “The Village,” and that might be because it’s hard to be pessimistic on-screen when we’re already so down on a daily basis. It could also be why the movie changes the entirety of the novel’s second act, wherein Andrew and Eric’s daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), is accidentally shot and killed. Shyamalan has put children in peril before, and even starts “The Village” with the death of a child. But Wen’s death in the book hits home on the question of religion and personal sacrifice, and also makes a point about societal fanaticism and how, too often, it is only on the bodies of those killed that humanity seems to care about social justice.

It’s clear why that death wasn’t going to happen in the movie. School shootings and the death of children is far too common in reality. But it would have colored the film with the cynicism that felt more comfortable in the mid-2000s than today. Just look at Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Mist.” That film, focused on a group of people trying to survive the arrival of monstrous creatures coming out of the eponymous mist, saw Thomas Jane’s David killing the remaining survivors – including his young son – right before the cavalry literally arrives and saves the day. That movie seemed to speak more on the need for hope in a hopeless world than “Knock at the Cabin” does.

Really, “Knock at the Cabin” seems less focused on humanity’s need to look at the facts and strive to be better, and instead says, “We should at least want to leave a better world for our kids.” It’s timely, yet simplistic. And it’s hard not to wish Shyamalan had gone back to the mindset of “The Village.” One fueled by frustration at humanity’s fear instead of trying to push away the horrors of the world.

“Knock at the Cabin” is now playing in theaters.