What does M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation “Knock at the Cabin” have in common with “Old,” “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening?” It’s glib, gloomy, and in the end, kind of pointless.
Even its “apocalyptic” edge seems played, a road to nowhere that takes 100 minutes to travel. It’s slick and sleek. But a filmmaker who started his career with “The Next Spielberg” hype but whose “surprise twist” thrillers revealed “The Next Hitchcock” to be Shyamalan’s real goal, seems to sort of flounder about on the screen, these days.
The twists became too obvious and the misses started outnumbering the hits, the Hitch and Spielberg comparisons faded as he focused on world building and horror “parables.” While he’s made a popular and successful pivot to TV (“Servant,” “Wayward Pines”), his movies just grow curiouser and curiouser, and ever more disappointing.
A gay couple, played by Jonathan Groff (“Hamilton,” TV’s “Mindhunters”) and Ben Aldridge (“Fleabag,” “Pennyworth”) and their adopted little girl (Kristen Chui) drive off to a rental cabin in the Pennsylvania woods for the weekend.
A stranger, played by tattooed man mountain Dave Bautista, walks out of the woods and strikes up a conversation with the child, gently brushing past her “I don’t talk to strangers.”
“I’m here to be your friend.”
As other “friends” appear in the woods (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn and Rupert Grint), “Leonard” tells Wen to inform her parents that he needs to talk them, and she flees.
A rising panic and shouted threats from inside the cabin merely delay the inevitable, which, as you’ve seen from the film’s trailers, climaxes with the folks from outside coming inside, armed with homemade cudgels, axes and the like, and making an announcement.
They are “normal people, just like you,” Leonard insists. But they have “the most important job in the history of the world.”
They’re here to persuade this modern family to choose among themselves which family member to “sacrifice” or “the world will end.”
The longer they take to decide, the more disasters — earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. — will befall a humanity that needs to be “punished.” If they don’t decide to act out “Sophie’s Choice,” humanity will end and they’ll be there to witness it.
Because even in the woods, they have cable. Not phone service, because that would be inconvenient to the plot. Just TV news “proof” that what these four strangers are foretelling will come to pass.
So what we’ve got here is a thought experiment/Old Testament morality play straight out of the Theatre of the Absurd.
There will be doubts sewn and perhaps dispelled, scheming to escape this fate and tragedies both huge and impersonal (via TV) and gruesomely close at hand.
And the whole time, through all the violence meant to shock and the acting meant to touch us, we’re wondering what sensitive Daddy Eric (Goffman), and tough and rational Daddy Andrew (Aldridge) wonder.
“Why?” “Punished” for what, exactly?
Habitat destruction, climate collapse, Nazi revivalism, general Godlessness, voting for the anti Christ…twice? Tik Tok?
Maybe as the gays wonder, it’s all about gay marriage.
Flashbacks give us pieces of their “story,” and the four visitors tell us, each in turn, their “stories” like every AA meeting, every “Chorus Line” pre-audition interview you’ve ever seen on screen.
This adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s novel gets a pass in this “why” question, as that’s a Theatre of the Absurd convention, fumbling in the darkness, “Six Characters in Search of an Author” or just a couple of clowns “Waiting for Godot.” There aren’t always answers.
But while Shyamalan does well by the story’s assorted jolts, and tries to have fun with a bit of casting against type with Bautista and Grint, “Knock” is so emotionally flat that I found it impossible to care about. For a film in which the stakes couldn’t be higher, that’s a fatal failing.
And without answers or any sort of soul wrenching pathos and sense of loss that isn’t undercut by a cheap musical joke at the end, one really does wonder if this ever had a point. Because it could use one.
Rating: R for violence and language
Cast: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Kristen Cui, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn and Rupert Grint.
Credits: Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, scripted by M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Mi, based on the novel by Paul Tremblay. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:40