‘Knock at the Cabin’ review: No surprise, M.Night Shyamalan’s latest release is long, slow, and disappointing
The twist of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie comes at the beginning rather than at the end. The problem with this arrangement is that the career of surprise-ending films like “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs” has audiences expecting something exciting to be revealed at the eleventh hour, at which point that horrific head-scratching has played out. his hand already.
“Knock at the Cabin” begins like a home invasion thriller, with four armed strangers descending on a remote cabin to annoy the occupants, except that none of the characters fit the stereotypes associated with the genre. First of all, the family renting the cabin isn’t what you might expect: a gay couple (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) with an adopted Chinese-American daughter (Christine Coe), maybe 6 or 7, with a cleft palate. The hackers are even stranger: a second-grade teacher (Dave Bautista), a nurse (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a short-term cook (Abby Quinn) and a plain-looking Harry Potter actor, all grown up (Rupert Grint). We’re told at some point that these four represent all dimensions of the human experience, but that’s just bad screenwriting. Nothing quite like a single human I’ve met in my life, but then, Shyamalan isn’t known for creating recognizable humans.
Hollywood movies rarely focus on gay characters, and when they do, they usually make a big deal about their sexuality. It’s a bit of a hack to discover that these two are just as loving a couple as anyone else. The world hasn’t been particularly fair to them yet, as a series of clichéd flashbacks reveal at the end (homophobic parents who don’t accept them, an adoption process that doesn’t accept them, and a drunken bar patron who doesn’t accept them). Will the American public accept them?
Handsome Eric (Gruff), his picture-perfect husband Andrew (Aldridge), and likable young Wayne are trying to enjoy a family vacation as far from civilization as possible when four strangers choose their cabin to break into. If Eric and Andrew were blunt, the movie might tease the implicit or explicit threat of rape, à la Straw Dogs, but it seems to be part of this sterile sensationalist strategy to keep this “monogamous” couple asexual. They do not touch, kiss, or show physical affection of any kind. But the invaders can’t hurt them either, according to some “rules” decided upon by Shyamalan and fellow screenwriters Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman (whose blacklisted script was overhauled by the director).
The twist, as mentioned above, is that the fate of the world rests in the hands of this gay couple. Not those from Nicolas Cage, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the family from A Quiet Place, all of whom readily accept and empathize in such situations. The ensuing drama hinges on an impossible decision, presented by Leonard of Bautista – a large, bald mountain of man wearing wire-frame specs and a costume three sizes too small which makes him look like one of those heavy-dressed “Zootopia water buffalo” compressed in human clothing: can these The family must save the world from doomsday, but to do so, they must decide to sacrifice one of their own.
What would you do if you faced the same dilemma? If Shyamalan’s film is the least effective, audiences will find themselves pondering that question, ideally until debating it long after the credits have rolled. But it’s a preposterous proposition, and instead we’re looking for the catch, looking through the clues for some other explanation for what’s going on – because that’s usually what happens in Shyamalan’s films. (This book is adapted from Paul Tremblay’s divisive horror novel, “The Cabin at the End of the World,” which may be the first book I’ve seen on Amazon with a user rating of less than four stars.)
What if the convolution is that there is no convolution? Instead, we get a thought experiment along the lines of killing a holy stag, minus the moral dimension that would have made it interesting. Eric and Andrew spend less than a minute of the film’s running time debating which of their family they would choose to get rid of so humanity can survive, focusing instead – as any sane person would – on why these people believe some kind of biblical Armageddon We. But let’s just say for a moment, because this is a supernatural movie from a director who took ghosts, aliens, and even superheroes seriously in the past, that this really is The Cabin at the End of the World. Why should anyone think that firing one of these three lovely people would fix things?
According to the aforementioned “Rules” – which appear to Leonard and his friends through a series of visions they speak of – the four Visitors have traveled all this way to plead their case, but they cannot force or harm the family in any way. (In the novel, someone gets killed by accident, which doesn’t change anything, because the death was not voluntary. Removing that trauma from the script also removes a key element of doubt: Why should Eric and Andrew have to believe the intruders?) In order to show how serious they are, The four strangers threaten to sacrifice themselves every time the family says “no”, using their sinister-looking homemade weapons to bludgeon one of their classmates to death.
All this is quite unpleasant, but also relatively unpredictable, which is a plus. The booth looks like a sound stage, the visual effects are cheap and unconvincing, and the acting is all over the place (like eavesdropping on auditions for various films), but that’s all part of the Shyamalan brand. He’s had a track record of bumps and strides, yet Shyamalan is still a master of tension. All the suspense leads to a major ebb here, but the experience at least doesn’t allow us to get too carried away with the plot. If anything, it’s playing funny games with the genre, obliquely asking us to sympathize with The Strangers. You get the picture. “Knock at the Cabin” takes a lead that audiences think they know and do something funky and are (unfortunately) frustrated with. The problem is, these days it’s no surprise that Shyamalan’s film has let down.
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