‘Knock at the Cabin’ Review: It’s Not Worth Answering the Door for M. Night Shyamalan’s Latest

It’s a film with violence but no edge, just a disturbing idea which plays out to a grim and unsatisfying conclusion

"Knock at the Cabin" (Universal Pictures)

At the heart of M. Night Shyamalan’s new thriller “Knock at the Cabin” there is a disturbing question that has only two terrible answers. Unfortunately, the answers aren’t just terrible for the characters, they’re terrible for the audience as well. Because whichever direction this film goes in it’s running headlong into a brick wall, with no brakes.

Based on the novel “Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul G. Tremblay, “Knock at the Cabin” stars Jonathan Groff (“The Matrix Resurrections”) and Ben Aldridge (“Spoiler Alert”) as Eric and Andrew, two gay dads on vacation at a cabin in the woods — always a mistake — with their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui). All is well. All is loving. Nothing bad could possibly happen.

Suddenly, they are visited by four mysterious strangers, led by the gigantic yet soft-voiced Leonard (Dave Bautista, “Glass Onion”), who are ever so kind and thoughtful. Except they’ve brought handmade medieval weaponry with them and they demand to be let inside. Before long, Eric and Andrew are tied to their chairs, Eric is concussed, and Leonard lays out the premise for the day.

It turns out that Leonard and his associates, Redmond (Rupert Grint, “Servant”), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird, “Persuasion”) and Adriane (Abby Quinn, “Torn Hearts”) have had a shared vision of the end of the world, and they believe the only way to stop it is if Eric, Andrew and Wen make a decision to kill one member of their family. They can’t kill themselves and nobody else can commit the murder for them. And every time Leonard asks, if they refuse, something very traumatic will happen to the world.

“Knock at the Cabin” has a premise that demands ambiguity to work in the slightest, because once Shyamalan tips his hat the story is functionally over. On the surface, it’s a film about religious doubt and personal sacrifice, and it’s not a very interesting one because it’s not about Eric and Andrew’s personal religion. Their sacrifice is being demanded by zealots who literally knocked on their door, uninvited.

Indeed, Andrew is quick to point out that what we are witnessing — regardless of context — is a violent crime committed against a queer family, which Leonard insists is merely a coincidence. That’s easy for Leonard to say, he didn’t write the story. The people who wrote the story don’t have that excuse. Every choice is intentional and reaps consequences.

So what this means, without giving away the ending, is that “Knock at the Cabin” is a film about one of two things: either it’s a film about religious extremists attacking a queer mixed race family and we’re supposed to be entertained by that, or it’s a film about how the only way to save the world is if religious extremists can convince gay people to admit the Old Testament is right and the world would be better off without one of them.

That’s an extremely dismal fork in the road and it’s frustrating to discover that nobody’s looking for another path. Shyamalan has no interest in keeping the mystery alive through the end credits, and none of the characters are clever enough to find a solution to their problems outside the binary they were presented with. Eventually, the film simply reveals that it’s a thoughtless, ugly piece of work, wherever it lands.

Which isn’t to say it’s an ugly-looking film or that the actors within it are doing poor jobs. The film’s two directors of photography, Jarin Blaschke (“The Northman”) and Lowell A. Meyer (“It Ain’t Over”) find exciting connective tissue between dappled sunlight and harsh shadows and make this cabin — for all the horrors that take place inside — look pretty darned appealing. There’s a bookshelf in there that’d be the envy of any bibliophile. It’s so omnipresent and distracting it’s practically its own character, and it’s one of the better ones.

Dave Bautista functionally steals this movie, his imposing frame providing a sharp contrast to his tender side. “Knock at the Cabin” really wants you to know that the zealots who are forcing this queer family to kill each other have a tender side. For a movie about quasi-religious violence the film seems genuinely terrified to say anything harsh about organized religion, specifically or in general, and its actual history of violence.

It’s bizarre that a horror movie as quiet and conversational as “Knock at the Cabin” could come across as so much less mature and intelligent as Drew Goddard’s “Cabin in the Woods,” a schlocky piece of fan fiction which does, at the very least, have something to say about violence, unjust sacrifice, and a world which demands it. And for what? To preserve the status quo? A status quo of violence and unjust sacrifice?

It took Shyamalan and two other screenwriters, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, to make this simple story seem incredibly simplistic. It’s a film with violence but no edge, just a disturbing idea which plays out to a grim and unsatisfying conclusion, unexplored and uninteresting. And it sadly takes the rest of us along with it, rolling our eyes and wishing we’d gone anywhere else instead of this lousy “Cabin.” Even the Airbnb from “Barbarian” would’ve been better than this.