From left to right, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Dave Bautista, Abby Quinn and Rupert Grint star in “Knock at the Cabin.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 1 (UPI) — Though an adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, the film Knock at the Cabin, in theaters Friday, is in writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s wheelhouse.
Unfortunately, the adaptation doesn’t quite explore the premise satisfactorily despite being deliberately constructed and well-acted.
Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) are staying at a secluded forest cabin in Pennsylvania with their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui). A stranger named Leonard (Dave Bautista) approaches from the woods with a gang of four to take the trio hostage.
Leonard tells the family that they must make a deadly choice to prevent the apocalypse. Only by their agreeing to kill one of the three will the apocalypse stop, and suicide doesn’t count.
Shyamalan, who co-wrote the adaptation with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, milks a lot of suspense out of the initial home invasion. Leonard first approaches Wen outside, and she is smart to refuse to talk to strangers.
But, the notion of a grown man talking to a lone child is automatically unsettling. Bautista is so naturally gentle with the child that it becomes even more so.
Wen runs to warn her parents, and they try to barricade the cabin. Shyamalan still constructs a tense standoff in which Eric and Andrew do everything they can to protect their daughter.
Knock at the Cabin takes time before revealing the question to introduce all four representatives of the apocalypse.
Redmond (Rupert Grint) is a volatile ex-con. Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a nurse who still tries to help the injured Eric. Adriane (Abby Quinn) is a line cook who got dragged into this, and Leonard is an elementary school athletic coach.
Once Leonard presents the question, the film explores the possible reactions to the dilemma Tremblay originally proposed. At first, Eric and Andrew just assume these are four homophobes, because they’re used to persecution.
The running time of the film requires Andrew and Eric to keep debating the question with Leonard, who tries to convince them he has visions of the apocalypse, but a pragmatic Andrew can dismiss each example.
The film establishes a three-way debate. Andrew is a definite nonbeliever. Leonard’s gang are all true believers, and Eric is a possible believer.
The problem is that Leonard doesn’t make a strong enough case for being right. The film should have the audience unsure who to believe, but the movie validates Andrew the most and makes it difficult to doubt him.
The premise of the book must have appealed to Shyamalan’s pattern of supernatural stories with a major twist at the end. Without spoiling the twist here, the premise of Tremblay’s book is a bit more straightforward than Shyamalan fans might hope for.
One of the issues is that the premise sets up a binary question. It’s either the apocalypse or it’s not.
Shyamalan’s most effective movies begin with a premise that’s more open-ended, whether a kid who sees ghosts, a man who never gets injured or a beach that makes you grow old. The twist often is established subtly, but it is surprising because it wasn’t what the audience was questioning.
However Knock at the Cabin ends, it is likely to disappoint half the audience. That’s OK to challenge such a large segment of viewers. But either way, it can’t help but feel like the preceding actions are pointless, whatever the answer to the question is.
Throughout the ordeal, the family keeps making plans to escape. Tables turn and the upper hand shifts back and forth. Things set up early in the film will pay off in ticking clock suspense scenes.
Shyamalan films the cabin diagonally and wide. The space remains dynamic for 100 minutes.
Flashbacks to Andrew and Eric’s past get the film out of the cabin a little bit, but Shyamalan manages to give himself his trademark acting cameo within the cabin.
With profanity and graphic violence, Knock at the Cabin is only Shyamalan’s second R-rated movie. He still frames the violence and apocalyptic destruction in a classy style, not just graphically.
Yet, all of that feels futile, since the film is more interested in the apocalypse question than the family’s escape. Knock at the Cabin is far from a bad movie, but nevertheless feels like a missed opportunity.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.