It begins with Wen (Kristen Cui), a little girl collecting grasshoppers. She doesn’t want to hurt them, she explains. She just wants to observe them, to see what they’ll do. Wen is on vacation with her two fathers, Daddy Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Daddy Andrew (Ben Alderidge). Things are calm, maybe a little boring, until she meets Leonard (Dave Bautista), a soft-spoken giant of a man covered in tattoos. He wants to be Wen’s friend, he explains. He wants to help her catch grasshoppers. But he’s also come here for much more than that, and while he doesn’t like what he’s there to do, he’s not going to let that stop him.
See, he and his friends — Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint) — have a purpose. They claim not to have met before today; they were brought together by a shared vision concerning the capital-A apocalypse. They’re convinced that unless a member of Wen’s family willingly chooses to sacrifice one of their members — it has to be a willing choice, and another member of the family has to be the one the that pulls the figurative trigger — the world’s going to end. Their attempts to explain this to Wen’s family go poorly, partially because they’re carrying homemade weapons, and they break into the cabin, subdue the family, and tie them up long enough to convince them to make an impossible choice.
It’s pretty clear these people would rather be anywhere else. They’re just regular people — nurses, cooks, teachers — the kind of folks that feel so bad about what they’re doing that they clean up the broken glass afterwards. The standout here is Bautista, who earns his top billing. Leonard may be huge, but he’s a kind man who is clearly uncomfortable with what he has to do and works as hard as he can to make himself appear smaller, non-threatening: slumped shoulders, leaning down to talk to Wen, a controlled voice. He never yells, even when it would be easy to, instead trying to convince and cajole and prove that he’s not a lunatic, that he doesn’t wan to be here, that it’s all real. The little glasses he’s wearing probably don’t hurt, either.
Amuka-Bird, Quinn, and particularly Grint give good performances, and each of their characters gets their little moments, but they’re clearly a supporting actors following Bautista’s lead.
The family, understandably, doesn’t believe their story. Both Andrew and Eric are defined by their experiences as gay men in a society that is actively hostile to them. Groff offers a vulnerable performance that grounds the film, but Alderidge has more to work with as Eric, a man who has turned his experiences with discrimination and homophobic violence into a focus on fitness, brutally honest (and sometimes hostile) logic, and gun ownership. We learn about their past through flashbacks interspersed throughout the story – adopting Wen while pretending one of the was the other’s brother-in-law to avoid being recognized, strained relationships with parents, being assaulted at a bar — and it’s easy to see why Andrew is so angry, and so combative, in this situation.
In another world, Knock at the Cabin could probably be a stage play. Most of the film takes place in a single environment, with quick asides interspersed to let us know where the characters are coming from. Shyamalan milks every ounce of tension he can from the set-up, but what really stands out is his use of the camera. It’s always in the right place, and always at an interesting angle, giving us tight, unexpected shots that constantly ground us in the perspective of the characters — we never see rooms that Wen, Andrew, and Eric can’t. The film also makes frequent use of close-ups, which adds to the tension and places the focus on the actors. Like Wen, Eric, and Andrew, we are trapped here in this cabin, with strange people.
The film alternates between dialing up the tension and keeping you guessing. You’ll find yourself believing and disbelieving Leonard and company, often within seconds of each other. What they’re saying, how they’re acting, it’s too specific to be made up, and weird things that support what they’re saying are beginning to happen on the news. But then one of them lets slip that they met one another on a message board, and isn’t sure if they had the visions before or after that. And what they’re claiming will happen matches up with what’s on the news — until Eric points out that some of it has been re-recorded. And Redmond reminds him an awful lot of someone he’s run into before, and not in a good way. The script is smart enough to raise these questions long before it provides answers for them, so you’re always guessing, reevaluating, trying to figure out what’s going to happen.
The film does make changes to Paul G. Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, so be warned if you’re a fan of how the book ends. But Shyamalan ties the ending together nicely in a way that respects the source material and the characters, and while it might be a bit predictable, it works well.
Knock at the Cabin isn’t peak Shyamalan. It’s not Unbreakable or Signs or The Sixth Sense. But it’s a tense thriller directed by a talented director who knows where he’s going and how to get us there. The fact that it finally gives Dave Bautista the starring role he’s more than earned is just a bonus.