Visions of a Vision in Knock at the Cabin

Meetings with doomy prophets often start casually (angels are much more intense). When Death meets the knight in The Seventh Seal, he says, “Are you ready?” When Leonard (Dave Bautista) approaches Wen (Kristen Cui) in M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin, even a viewer with no knowledge of the film’s trailer would be able to see Death on him. “My name’s Leonard,” he says, “It’s nice to meet you.” He and three other messengers break into the cabin of Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) to tell them their role in the impending apocalypse. The film makes no mistake of its allusions, calling them by name as the “horsemen of the apocalypse” in a script that rarely distinguishes its side notes from its dialogue. “Make a choice,” Leonard says at the end of each day (or half-day, depending on the pace the script needs to keep). And after each day, the family reaps the consequences of their love for each other. It’s the classic Shyamalan cosmic family allegory that he expressed in Signs, Lady in the Water, and The Happening but turned into an even more literal text. Knock at the Cabin suspends interest by baiting how things will play out, powered by M. Night’s aloof idea of human social interactions as a Socratic dialogue, which he refreshingly seems to be embracing after a period of doubtful blockbuster distractions. But the film never suspends belief. Not even the most skeptical viewer could doubt that what the characters describe to be true is absolutely true. It has circumstantial suspense but no unknowns, and that makes it oddly forgettable in M. Night's canon despite placing in the upper half of it.

The film establishes a set of rules that dictate its pacing, which I won't spoil. The important clarification is that rather than build tension within the rigid constraints of these rules, M. Night lets them slide or get reinterpreted to maintain pacing. By being less attentive to its mythology than its mood, the film falls short of its fairytale heritage, where stories placed within a timer are driven to the limits of their self-made conditions (it's as true of the Catholic end-times fable, "The Three Days of Darkness," as of "Rumpelstiltskin"). Similarly, Eric suggests that the horsemen’s traits (malice, guidance, nurturing, and healing) represent the full scope of humanity with only implications of them. These virtues are rarely pushed in dramatic situations emblematic of a diverse philosophical scenario befitting a near-completely self-contained setting (the character described as guidance could also be described as nurturing, nurturing overlaps with healing, etc.). Shyamalan misses opportunities for a play of virtues by relying on the plot as a concept rather than developing its emotional potential. Despite never getting a one-word epitaph, the characters in 12 Angry Men have a more clarified role in its play of virtues (The Humans is a more recent example). Failing to establish that level of philosophical chemistry common to cinematic playwriting is a missed opportunity for Shyamalan to generate more than face-value suspense. The characters fear the intruders far more than the audience ever could.

Bautista partly precludes that fear by nature – he’s so imposing that it’s more natural to believe in his hidden innocence than his wrath. It would have been a twist if he was evil, not good. He’s the main spokesman for Shyamalan’s pacing, which often relies on taking a vibe at face value and ignoring how often he restricts logical actions behind preset conditions of timing. The result is a nagging sense of illogical withholding throughout the opening salvos of apocalyptic imagery for the sake of a boomy mood. Once the logic of their mission is revealed, it becomes unclear why the horsemen didn't offer more convincing proof of their visions from the start. Rather than verify their claims proactively, they only claim the news images as their prophecies in retrospect, which allows Eric and Andrew (and the audience) to doubt them. But the screenplay doesn’t have a good reason for them to make their plight so unconvincing other than sowing this doubt, especially after revealing how detailed their premonitions are when only those details can move the plot forward. Without another twist, such as a hidden reason for them to withhold certainty, their actions in retrospect seem more self-defeating than haunting.

Shyamalan often relies on interactions to drive suspense in the absence of coherent rules, which puts his idiosyncratic dialogue pacing at the center of the tension. So it takes a certain kind of actor to read his lines well (no one will ever top Bruce Willis, who can say the most serious things with the casual confidence that most people reserve for sarcastic apologies). Bautista pulls off Shyamalanian statements of purpose with an even meter (“My heart is broken because of what I have to do today”). Aldridge's failure to comply with that pacing fits his character as an aggressive outsider in Shyamalan’s bizarre world of half-anesthetized metaphors (Groff is somewhere between). But it’s Cui as the young daughter, Wen, that really matches how M. Night sees their little world. She’s so facially invested in using obvious lines as a way to tell the truth that even sarcasm seems gravely matter-of-fact. By creating the intended mood in Knock at the Cabin, she’s his greatest weapon, as Osment was in The Sixth Sense. Her reactions to scenes fit within the fantasy of Shyamalan's socially restrained dialogue as a reminder of just how well he works with people whose mood matches his own point of view.

Jarin Blaschke shoots the film unafraid to use cheesy conventions of suspense like fully centered wide-eyed faces to communicate a wide-eyed feeling. The cast, which also includes Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint, and Abby Quin, seem genuinely scared to be in the frame for too long, as though they’ll burn out their usefulness more quickly. The whole scenario builds up that shadowy impression of death-giving but without tricking the audience into believing in any other possibility. Faith, a belief in something unprovable, can’t survive as the theme of the story in a scenario where the characters can only resolve the plot naturally once something has been proven. Knock at the Cabin deflects its most basic internal mechanism, which is the concept that even the greatest amount of earthly love can be overridden by an act of faith, with the need to explain too precisely why that happens.

The established scenario doesn’t just imply a great sacrifice (Shyamalan rarely stops his writing at just an implication) but demands one in explicit meta-text. Yet as it plays out, there's no real sacrifice because there’s no real question of faith. It’s just a question of how long it takes for revelations of information to add up to an inevitable movie ending. Shyamalan’s obsession with B-movies drives his uniquely over-charactered dialogue but limits his ability to work in dramatic abstracts. Sometimes, as in Unbreakable and Signs, this results in a revelatory reiteration of a familiar genre in the context of his eccentric mystery-making. But in the case of Knock at the Cabin, anything that can happen, does happen. The thrill of containment isn’t just a stylistic choice for him at this point – it’s a philosophical necessity.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Universal Pictures/Blinding Edge Pictures

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