Perhaps it’s having a child at the center of a film that provides M. Night Shyamalan with the added spark necessary to making a solid, thoroughly enjoyable film. I refer not just to THE SIXTH SENSE, which catapulted the director to rock star filmmaker status, but also to WIDE AWAKE, the film just before that one, and the one that got him the multi-film deal that led to TSS. In that one, we see the troubling adult world through a child’s eyes, and in the case of KNOCK AT THE CABIN, it is not just a troubling adult world, but has upped the ante by being one that may or may not be about to experience the apocalypse in various iterations.
This is a small film, but one that makes a virtue of the confines of the titular cabin wherein Daddy Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Daddy Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and seven-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) are confronted by the most polite and remorseful home invaders yet seen in cinema. Led by Leonard (Dave Bautista), the invaders knock first at the remote Pennsylvania cabin where the family is vacationing. He explains that they are there on an important mission that only the family can achieve and that they, themselves, will not hurt the trio. The homemade weapons they are carrying belie that, as does the concussion Daddy Andrew suffers during the actual invasion during which the daddys are tied up, the better to have them focus on why the invader are there. The ci-mentioned apocalypse is coming, and the only way to stave it off is for the family to make a sacrifice of one of them. It has to be done willingly, and the killing must be carried out with the consent, and action, of the others. They will be asked four times, and with each no, a new plague will descend upon the earth taking with it a portion of the population.
Of course, they refuse. It’s the reasonable thing to do, even after the polite introductions from each of them, Leonard, the primary schoolteacher, Adriane (Abby Quinn) the line cook, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), the registered nurse, and Redmond (Rupert Grint), the gas company employee tasked with preventing explosions, but who has trouble keeping his temper from doing just that.
As the next 24 hours unfold in a place where cell reception is non-existent, the land line has been cut, and television reception is questionable, the family, and we, are asked to sort out reality from psychotic break, and actual plague from wild coincidence. In itself, it makes for an interesting premise, but the family’s backstory, and the traumas of being a same-sex couple are deftly entwined into the plot, forcing us to question everyone’s perceptions, not just those of the home invaders.
There is a jangling tension in the kindness of the captors and their violent actions. Amid the many questions presented, that they are terrified of what will happen if they don’t succeed in their mission is never one of them. Redmond excepted, these are empathetic people of exceptional kindness who take genuine pleasure in nurturing with food or medical attention. Bautista, in particular, emanates a gentle sweetness at odds with his man-mountain physique and gnarly tattoos. It puts us in the position of liking these invaders despite their actions, and in an unsettling way, making us want to believe in what they are doing, and, at the same time, hoping that somehow Eric and Andrew will be able to show them the error of their ways, and the sorrow of knowing that one side or the other is doomed to failure.
It’s a fine exercise in the ethics of altruism and the morality of believing in the absolute sanctity of all life. As the film begins, Wen is capturing grasshoppers to study with the intention of freeing them once she’s done, and being amazed at how tender Leonard is when adding a new one to her collection jar. Credit Bautista for making that first meeting with Wen, properly wary of the stranger who appears from nowhere and before the others arrive, an immediate struggle between wanting to believe the best about Leonard and knowing that this can’t be a good thing. Credit Cui, too, for a performance that is never precious but is, instead, nuanced even when calling for terror so overwhelming it leaves Wen speechless.
And credit Shyamalan for the way he keeps the camera on tight focus on his character’s faces, adding immediacy to the proceedings, but also the unsettling feeling of having one’s space invaded in the same the way Wen’s and her father’s have been. The mood remains tense, the camera angles unpredictable and secretive, but the air is disarmingly quiet even during the worst violence. This is a story about perception, and it stays there without histrionics and spares us the spectacle of CGI for its own sake.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN is also about the power of love, which may not be able to conquer all, which does require sacrifice (of a more metaphorical nature, but does provoke the best in us.