Editor’s Note: Potential light spoilers can be found in this review for both book and film.
While A Head Full of Ghosts is my favorite of his books, Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World has a strong premise – save your family or save humanity. Which decision would we make when confronted with that choice? What would it take to convince us of this choice? No matter how much we truly cared for our loved ones? A psychological thriller that digs deep, there’s a lot to work with.
M. Night Shyamalan’s KNOCK AT THE CABIN, is almost there in terms of capturing what made Tremblay’s novel memorable on the surface. Four figures take over a family’s remote vacation cabin with the news that they need to sacrifice a member of the family to prevent the apocalypse. If they do not pick, each one of the four will be killed in turn. The individual death of the four serves as a visual demonstration of the judgment cast against humanity.
For the first third of the film, the tension is well-executed. The opener translated from page to screen is strong, featuring the introduction of Dave Bautista’s Leonard and Kristen Cui’s Wen. Reminiscent of 1931’s Frankenstein, it’s enough to set anyone on edge. Leading up to the first death, we are rendered powerless much like the family onscreen, and left questioning what is real and what is not. It is after the first kill that the tension begins to wane despite the clearly defined stakes, and a lot of it has to do with changes made.
For better or worse
The second third of KNOCK AT THE CABIN reveals a lack of faith in the audience, as repetition of what the family must do grows old fast. Many moments read as exposition, which undercuts the tension rather than building on top of it. Repetition plays a hand in the original novel but, in a film aiming for steady pacing within its runtime, it detracts from other key areas that could have otherwise been explored.
Shyamalan’s alterations to the story don’t necessarily strengthen the overall plot. Granted, the novel makes some incredibly bleak decisions that would not sit well with a general audience, but the alternative i.e. verbal repetition does little to propel things forward. In this, Shyamalan plays it too safely.
Books fans will likely be torn with the changes made in KNOCK AT THE CABIN, particularly with the ending. The thorough line is the love that the two men share for each other, but also for Wen. The three shall never be separated in all capacities. There are little touches made in the rewritten ending that have forgotten this, even while the love the men share shines through.
Part of the overriding success of Paul Tremblay’s novel is in the ending’s ambiguity, leaving it up to imagination if the apocalypse is truly happening or not. Shyamalan and co. rid the audience of that choice, for better or worse. Unchanged is the signature bleakness of the novel being carried through all the way until the end, with just a hint of hope shining through.
Not all is lost in KNOCK AT THE CABIN
There’s good to be found in KNOCK AT THE CABIN. The performances are strong. As many will likely mention, Dave Bautista does well here playing against type and again illustrates how his acting has evolved. Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge highlight their characters’ opposites-attracts dynamic perfectly. Aldridge nails Andrew’s rage against the world to a tee, though more levels would have made his performance spectacular.
Nikki Amuka-Bird’s Sabrina wears everything on her sleeve. Amuka-Bird encapsulates the internal struggle of Sabrina as she’s upended her life to carry out the task at hand. Caring yet committed, her performance may make your heart break. The same can be said for Abby Quinn’s Adriane. Young and jittery, we get the sense of how easily swayed she might be until the veil is lifted.
Rupert Grint’s performance reads similarly to his portrayal of Julian in Shyamalan’s “Servant” series, with a couple of slight adjustments. While Redmond’s plot trajectory makes a lasting impression, it’s hard not to compare the performance to Grint’s previous work. Speaking of child actors, Shyamalan has such a way of working with child actors. It’s no wonder Kristen Cui’s Wen shows the young actor’s promise. Cui doesn’t get lost in the sea of actors onscreen. Their Wen is equal with everyone else.
The potential to be great
Constrained mostly to the cabin, Naaman Marshall’s production design and the set decoration provided by Jeno Delli Colli and Karen Frick create a lived-in space perfect for dismantling as the world slowly ends around the family. Sticking to the color scheme featured in the book, Caroline Duncan’s costume design helps the audience put the identifying pieces together sooner.
Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s composition sews the seeds of tension from the opening credits onward. At times, the composition makes up for the dip and loss of tension in the middle of the KNOCK AT THE CABIN. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it helps shine a brighter spotlight on the music and sound design. Jarin Blaschke’s and Lowell A. Meyer’s camerawork is intimate. Close-up shots force the audience not to look away from each character as the drama unfolds, a smart choice, especially in key moments. One scene featuring a fight between Aldridge and Grint makes it feel incredibly real due to the camera’s perspective. Again, all decisions made serve to amplify the tension, even if other elements don’t necessarily work.
When compared to the rest of his work, KNOCK AT THE CABIN is arguably one of M. Night Shyamalan’s safer films. It does capture some of the energy of its source material. It is bleak and will have you questioning yourself. Unfortunately, the film lacks the deeper psychological depth that came with the novel. Great performances and flashback sequences can only do so much to facilitate connection when the surface is merely scratched. As a result, the ending doesn’t hit the emotional gut punch that it could have had. In short, it’s okay but it had the potential to be better in execution.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN will hit theaters on February 3, 2022.
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