“Knock at the Cabin” couples terror with tenderness

M. Night Shyamalan’s filmmaking career has taken many wild and woolly turns in over 30 years, but recently he seems to have stumbled upon a powerful, understated plot formula: What if you took your kids on vacation and something terrible happened? In his 2021 hit Old, a family gets stuck on a secret beach that is aging them rapidly. His new sequel Knock at the hutsuggests another Twilight Zone– similar puzzle for a family trying to spend a weekend. Put simply, the world is ending and the only way to stop it is to kill someone you love.

This ultimatum is presented to them by four intimidating strangers with medieval-looking weapons, led by the hulking Leonard (played by Dave Bautista). The vulnerable family is a gay couple, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), and they immediately assume the threat is just a cruel hoax based on prejudice, what the home invaders deny. Shyamalan delves deeply into how family units can be tested by tremendous, even supernatural, stress. Knock at the hut is perhaps his most blunt exploration yet, as Eric and Andrew begin to realize they are faced with an impossible choice.

The premise unfolds in a way that is unusually clear for Shyamalan. It lacks the crazy fantasy elements of Oldthe comic book increase of Splits and Glassand the outspoken slapstick humor of The visitthe found-footage horror that launched his career in 2015. Knock at the hut based on the novel The hut at the end of the world, by Paul G. Tremblay, and it retains most of the heart-pounding, direct narrative of that story. Leonard and his foreboding buddies initially seem like a cult completely detached from reality. But as the day goes on, Leonard’s apocalyptic visions seem more and more plausible.

One of Shyamalan’s touchstones as a horror storyteller is his sincerity; He takes ridiculous concepts and somehow pushes them into the realm of reality. This tonal trick didn’t always work – which made films sink like The happening and lady in the water was how harrowing was the juxtaposition between the earnest performances of the ensembles and the underlying silliness of the plots. Knock at the hut avoids this problem in part through his skillful casting, with Bautista serving as the key player. Much of the film revolves around Leonard’s surreal monologues; The actor keeps a firm grip on Leonard’s faith with every word.

Bautista’s breakout performance came in Guardians of the Galaxy, in which he played an alien who always means exactly what he says – he comes from a planet without irony. The disarming authenticity he’s honed in the role makes him an especially strong screen presence here, lending Leonard an aura of menace that transcends his imposing physical form (and large bladed weapon). Leonard’s omen obviously sounds absurd, and the main evidence he and his fellow assailants have to offer is their collective vision. But Leonard’s gentle admonition that the only way forward is violent death commands everyone’s attention precisely because he says it in such a measured, understated way.

Equally disturbing is the fact that the world actually does seem to melt together around Eric and Andrew; Leonard points to reports of tsunamis, pandemics, and other disasters I will not spoil as proof that his predictions come to life. But the gruesome twist is that these kinds of horrific events play out in the news all the time, and Eric and Andrew’s desensitization feeds their denial. At the core of Shyamalan’s story is the idea that raising children in this world – where sea levels are rising and environmental degradation is almost always in the background – is an inherently tragic project.

Shyamalan intersperses some flashbacks to Eric and Andrew’s relationship, their struggle to adopt a child, and their resilience. These fleeting memories help clarify the commitment of their imminent sacrifice. They also introduce a tricky angle that the film hardly has time to explore but which I kept pondering after exiting the theater. Is Eric and Andrew’s fate completely random or were they chosen because their relationship is so strong? Shyamalan’s devotion to the fathers and their sweet, withdrawn daughter is evidenced by scenes of genuine tenderness, and Groff’s performance is particularly moving. But these touches also make the film’s final act all the more grueling; it’s steeped in catastrophe and utterly devoid of winks at the camera.

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