When he broke into the mainstream with the now-classic “The Sixth Sense,” M. Night Shyamalan was deemed an expert of suspense, and rightfully so. Embracing the uncanny and leaving audiences stunned by his archetypal twists, the director was once a master of his craft.
In stark contrast with his early works, however, Shyamalan’s filmography has taken a disastrous nosedive over the past decade. Once providing fans with atmospheric slow burns, his recent films have become awkwardly commercial and predictable to the nth degree. Sadly, Shyamalan’s most recent production, “Knock at the Cabin,” is no exception to this disheartening trend.
Following the woodsy vacation of Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), the family’s retreat immediately goes awry when Leonard (Dave Bautista) insists on entering the secluded cabin. With three accomplices (Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Abby Quinn), all bearing daunting weapons, Leonard and his crew invade the home, detain the family and attempt to explain their far-fetched reasoning behind the break-in. Informing the panic-stricken trio that one of them must kill another in order to halt the end of the world, the intruders force Eric and Andrew to contemplate their realities as the once-tranquil trip descends into madness.
Based on the 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul Tremblay, the film’s plot seems, at the very least, entertaining. With ample opportunity to shock audiences through gore and psychological dread, Shyamalan had a solid foundation to construct his film. Yet –– in typical post-2010 Shyamalan fashion –– the film took nearly zero advantage of the original story’s potential.
In what could’ve been the most unpredictable, psychologically twisted film of the year, Shyamalan managed to create the most milquetoast “suspense” movie the genre has recently witnessed. The film’s gore takes place entirely off-screen while lending far too much attention to the antiquated, uber-white storyline of Eric and Andrew’s queer struggles. Featuring flashbacks to an awkward family dinner, a dive-bar hate crime and a white-savior-tainted trip to the Chinese orphanage where Wen –– who, notably, had a cleft lip –– was adopted, audiences are forced to grapple with Shyamalan’s tone-deaf directorial decisions.
The only aspect more tedious than the film’s script is its camerawork, which bombards viewers with an endless stream of nauseating close-ups. While initially successful at capturing the intruders’ sense of derangement (especially within the main “villain,” Leonard), the face shots lose their effectiveness not even 10 minutes into the watch and eventually become comical. To label the film a “horror movie” seems dishonest, as the sense of terror Shyamalan attempts to instill within his audience quickly dissipates (that is, if it even existed to begin with).
However, while the film’s execution was a disaster, its failure cannot be attributed to the impressive cast. The four intruders provide intensely multifaceted performances, walking the line between cult-like psychosis and empathy-inducing desperation. Similarly, Groff and Aldridge captivate audiences with the emotional tidal waves wrought throughout their roles. Most notably, 9-year-old Cui showcases her undeniable talents, granting a poorly written script a bit more life in her big-screen debut. Yet, unfortunately for the cast, not even the best actors could have saved the film from its demise.
Monotony prevails from the film’s opening shot to its finale. Overflowing with painful dialogue and pseudo-intellectual metaphor, Shyamalan seems uncertain as to who his audience is. Largely avoiding the silliness of mainstream horror paragons like “Ma,” all while denying audiences the societal ambiguities of films such as “Hereditary” and “Us,” “Knock at the Cabin” once again showcases the director’s downward trajectory. Where Shyamalan once was able to shock, he now bores. Even with its talented cast, his most recent film remains unforgivably lifeless.