This article contains mild Knock at the Cabin spoilers.
“Don’t you look away.”
That’s the one command a soon-to-be-executed man makes before he sacrifices himself in an attempt to prevent the apocalypse in Knock at the Cabin, the latest from director M. Night Shyamalan. It’s grim stuff, but nasty, ludicrous premises such as these have become the norm for Shyamalan, especially over the past decade. Ever since the once vaunted director’s Hollywood career stalled with famous flops The Last Airbender and After Earth, Shyamalan has found his footing again with a series of nasties, including the found-footage cheapie The Visit and the wonderfully ridiculous Old.
Despite what Newsweek proclaimed in a 2002 cover story (timed with the release of Signs), Shyamalan never became the next Steven Spielberg, especially when the genuine article is still making excellent movies well into his 70s. Instead Shyamalan has become something else—and something far more interesting. With movies like Old and and Split, the director has embraced his trashiest instincts without sacrificing the visual panache that has always defined his work.
Yet just when you expected that nasty streak to continue with Knock at the Cabin, released into theaters this weekend, something else happened. In the most unexpected Shyamalan twist, the camera follows a horrible-looking instrument of death as it hovers above the soon-to-be-sacrificed man. But as soon as the weapon slams into the man’s head, the camera disobeys his last request. It looks away. Instead of indulging in the gore and shock of the moment, Shyamalan trains his camera on the faces of people, focusing instead on their feelings. Is M. Night Shyamalan finished with the trash phase of his career, and is he ready to return to the heights of his most prestigious days?
A Split From Good Taste
To be sure, the director has always had a nasty streak. The Sixth Sense features a girl killed by a mother with Munchausen syndrome while Signs revealed that a loving God orchestrated the brutal death of a minister’s wife in preparation for an alien invasion. And Shyamalan has always chosen shock over good taste, particularly when dealing with mental illnesses and disabilities. Just look at the Noah Percy character from The Village, who not only presents the greatest danger to the other characters in the movie but is also portrayed by the wholly incurious Adam Brody.
As the director’s star began to fade after audiences (unfairly) rejected The Village as a ludicrous story built around an uninteresting twist, we saw more of that nasty side at work. The Happening, the first R-rated film in Shyamalan’s oeuvre, had outrageous scenes of a man laying down in front of a running lawn mower, and another allowing himself to be mauled by lions. However, these were just glimpses of what was to come after the unconvincing character drama of the disastrous The Last Airbender and the Will Smith nepotism vehicle, After Earth.
After those critical and commercial failures, the post-Sixth Sense sheen where the filmmaker was hailed as the next Spielberg or Hitchcock was well and truly gone. So what did Shyamalan do? He teamed up with Blumhouse and made a movie in which an elderly man sticks a soiled adult diaper on the head of a young germaphobic boy. Not only did 2015’s The Visit embrace its low-budget aesthetic, following the found footage trend of the last decade, but it used the lower stakes to wallow in the director’s basest impulses. Over a trim 94 minutes, The Visit gives viewers a scary naked granny, a whole shed full of poopy diapers, and an incredibly embarrassing rap song. It’s all shocking and tasteless, and a whole lot of fun.
The same could be said of his follow-up Split. Yes, it features a great cast, including Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, and James McAvoy, and yes it has some exciting visuals. But really, you’re coming for a bonkers story about a guy with dissociative identity disorder who kidnaps young girls and eats them in preparation for “the Beast.”
Between McAvoy’s wonderfully committed performance and some genuinely gnarly moments, most people didn’t even worry too much about the movie’s scare-mongering about mental illness and truly outrageous sexual abuse subplot. And with Split, Shyamalan rocketed right past good sense and good taste, delivering an audaciously weird bit of blockbuster cinema that made him a household name again.
An Ominous Knock
At first glance, Knock at the Cabin seems to continue that tradition. Based on the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, the movie stars Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge as husbands Eric and Andrew, who escape with their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui, in an utterly delightful performance) to a cabin in rural Pennsylvania. However, their idyllic bliss is cut short when a quartet led by school teacher/bartender Leonard (an outstanding Dave Bautista) arrives and informs the family that they must sacrifice one of their number to prevent the apocalypse.
From that ludicrous premise, Shyamalan crafts a bleak story in which horrendous suffering is visited upon a loving family who has done nothing wrong. As the men try to fight back and bring their daughter to safety, they and their reluctant invaders inflict all manner of physical damage on one another, including gouges to the head and bullet wounds in the stomach. At no point does the movie pull back from the suffering. In fact, it only further underscores the impossibility of the situation as the story unfolds.
Moreover, Knock at the Cabin dives headfirst into questionable storytelling decisions. The husbands bring their daughter to the cabin to recover from a homophobic attack on Andrew, an event that lingers over the entire film. Furthermore, the fact that a family consisting of two gay men and their adopted Asian American daughter must suffer to appease an all-powerful supernatural force brings to mind the type of diseased thinking that prompts hate-mongers like Jerry Falwell to blame Hurricane Katrina on the LGTBQ+ community.
And yet, despite gleefully ignoring the red flags of good taste to craft a tense and bleak thriller, Shyamalan keeps his focus entirely on the humanity of the characters. Ever the visual stylist, Shyamalan and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke train the camera solely on the character’s expressions and bodies, giving them room to show joy and contentment before the invasion and utter despair. In fact, the most discomfiting part of Knock at the Cabin involves the filmmakers’ decision to frequently shoot actors in shallow-focus extreme close-up, filling the screen with their faces.
With these unnerving but moving visuals, Knock at the Cabin reveals that the Shyamalan’s interest lies not with the gore and shock, but with the humanity of those enduring it. For all of its supernatural stylings and bleak plotting, Knock at the Cabin is ultimately a movie about humans begging other humans to care about one another, to see that other people have feelings and emotions. In short, it is Shyamalan’s most humane movie since The Sixth Sense.
A Horrible Happening?
At this point, it’s still too early to say what this shift in focus means for Shyamalan’s future career. He’s tried making high-concept movies that explore aspects of humanity, including faith, the desire for security, and the need to live a life that matters. But as the first half of his career showed, the director gets lost when making those humanistic aspects his primary concerns. Instead he’s been far more effective telling shocking little tales with great performances and stunning visuals.
Of course there’s no reason that he can’t do both. Filmmakers from Frank Henenlotter to Julia Ducournau, to James Gunn, have mixed tasteless plots with deep empathy and humanity. But even as Old managed to be about a beach that makes you age and about a married couple learning to savor the richness of their complicated life; The Happening, meanwhile, tried to marry absurd kill scenes to a story about mistreating the earth—which buried the most striking scenes of his career under leaden performances and a dull plot.
Knock at the Cabin blends and surpasses those previous experiments, showing that Shyamalan can still handle character-driven genre stories with the same empathy and humanity that keeps us rewatching The Sixth Sense long after lil’ Cole told us his secret. But as he moves back to his more respectable fare, I cannot help but hope that Shyamalan won’t abandon his schlocky heart, that he won’t look away from the nastiness of trash cinema, even as he looks toward the human.