M. Night Shyamalan‘s movies have long had a messianic, religious-but-not-specifically-about-any-one-religion quality to them, which many critics have noted. The (great) book about the making of Lady In The Water was called “The Man Who Heard Voices.” “Visionary” and “kook” have always been kissing cousins, especially so for a filmmaker as simultaneously acclaimed and derided as Shyamalan.
So I suppose it should be no surprise that Shyamalan’s latest, A Knock At The Cabin, ponders some big questions. All great fiction writers tend towards grandiose, and I generally love the ones who aren’t shy about it. Yet at a certain scale, the “big questions” (the meaning of life, the nature of time, the boundaries of the universe, etc.) become so big that they’re essentially imponderable without a metaphor.
Asking the big questions and only the big questions also skips over all the dumb little questions, the minor slings, the Seinfeldian observations that, for me, are most of what make it interesting. After a promising opening, A Knock At The Cabin becomes basically like watching an ensemble cast stand around arguing about whether a tree that falls in the forest actually makes a sound.
We open with a little girl (Kristen Cui) catching grasshoppers in the forest (eccentric, precocious children being a Shyamalan staple). A hulking man (Dave Bautista) somewhat unnervingly shows up, and at first he seems gentle and friendly. Bautista embodies that inviting/menacing dynamic perfectly, his tattoos and bulldog neck always warring with his dewy eyes and shar pei-like scalp wrinkles. It’s hard not to enjoy this man. The man helps this little girl catch grasshoppers, but when she asks him why he seems sad and he answers “Because my heart is breaking for what I have to do today,” she’s smart enough to run.
It turns out Bulldog Dave and a few pals (Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn) have shown up to this cabin in the woods to present an ultimatum to little Wen and her two gay dads (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge): the family has to agree to kill one member or it will bring about the Biblical(ish) apocalypse and everyone else on Earth will die.
The big question being pondered here is whether you would sacrifice your own future or a loved one’s to rescue a future for everyone else, even knowing you or your loved one will never see it. It’s basically the story of Jesus, Abraham, and almost every Marvel or action hero. Whenever a superhero grows a beard, you know someone, usually a small girl, is going to have to try to convince them that even though humans can be terrible, humanity is still worth saving. A Knock At The Cabin is essentially that story, only the superheroes are two gay dads and their daughter, and the little girl is four randos.
Complicating matters somewhat is the fact that, when confronted with four strangers telling them that they have to murder a loved one or watch all of humanity die, the family in the cabin do what most rational people would do in this situation: they assume these strangers are kooks. They spend basically the remainder of the movie arguing over whether this prophecy is real from the confines of this self-same cabin.
A good single-location movie makes you forget that it’s a single-location movie. The bad ones feel like someone trying to impress their teacher. A Knock At The Cabin mostly just makes you wonder why you would want to ponder the same question so many exciting action movies have before from the confines of a not-particularly-visually-interesting cabin. God forgive me for saying so, but the concept of selflessness was a lot more exciting when Randy Quaid was suicidally flying a jet into an alien spaceship’s butthole.
M. Night Shyamalan has made a lot of bad movies, but rarely an ugly one, and here most of his legitimate facilities for framing and composition are wasted on a cabin where people do nothing but yap yap yap. Turns out, the fate of humanity hanging in the balance actually gets really dull after a while.
Moreover, a question like “is humanity worth sacrificing yourself over” is one that’s so big that it can only really be answered in ways that feel either too-pat or abstract to the point of being supernatural and quasi-religious. And that, in the end, is sort of what A Knock At The Cabin is: an extended, pseudoreligious sermon delivered without many direct references to any one religion. The longer it went on the more I felt like I’d accidentally wandered into a personality test or had invited in a missionary who wouldn’t leave. Pondering the big questions is great from time to time, but to me, life is really dull when you can’t sweat the small stuff.