'Knock at the Cabin' another knock on Shyamalan's career

The 'Sixth Sense' filmmaker returns with an end of the world story that never quite adds up.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Doomsday is nigh, and it's up to a couple to sacrifice either themselves or the life of their child in order to save life on Earth.

OK, what's the twist? That's the question in "Knock at the Cabin," the latest from M. Night Shyamalan, the rascally filmmaker whose films usually rely on some sort of gotcha moment where the things you thought were true are flipped on their ear and a new reality is revealed. He's made it so you don't watch his movies as movies, you look at them as puzzles to be solved. And in "Knock at the Cabin," several pieces to that puzzle are missing from the box.

Kristen Cui and Dave Bautista in "Knock at the Cabin."

Just outside the cabin of the title, 8-or-so-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) is playing in the woods, collecting grasshoppers, when she's approached by a hulk of a human who seems to shake the earth when he walks. That's Leonard (Dave Bautista), and he's dressed in a white short-sleeve button-up and wearing wire frames over his eyes, looking like a pro wrestler who found God and now sells Bibles door to door.

Leonard is a gentle giant, and he kindly explains to Wen that he needs to talk to her parents. That would be Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), who are enjoying a quiet, secluded weekend with their adopted daughter, and frankly weren't expecting any guests. Leonard's heart is broken, he tells Wen, "because of what I have to do today."

That business of the day is what makes up "Knock at the Cabin," and frankly it's a lot to swallow — for Leonard and his three medieval weapon-carrying sidekicks (including former "Harry Potter" actor Rupert Grint), for the family to whom it's being done, and most importantly for the viewing audience. Buckle up, this ride's about to get very bumpy.

For whatever reason — and to say the details are fuzzy would be an understatement — Eric and Andrew have been chosen, and the fate of humanity rests in their hands. It's up to them to either sacrifice one of their own lives or the life of their child or the rest of the planet will perish in a series of apocalyptic events. And the clock is already ticking.

That is the scenario Leonard and his gang lays out for the couple, after a home invasion where he and his cohorts tie up the family. And naturally, Eric and Andrew are horrified and befuddled: you want us to do what, in order to do what? What in the world are you talking about? And, um, who are you again?

It gets worse: every so often, after a period of time in which the couple does not make a sacrifice, one of Leonard's cohorts puts a white mask over their face and he bludgeons them to death, emotionlessly announcing, "a part of humanity has been judged." It's not personal, it's just business — world ending business. And then he flips on a TV set to show cable news footage of some sort of global atrocity occurring in real time, pinning it on Eric and Andrew for not complying with the rules set forth.

So what we have here is religious zealotry gone wild, as carried out by a group of fanatical warriors, bound together by shared visions, who are out to, in their eyes, save the world. But the mechanics of all this, the who or why of it all, are never properly explained, not by Leonard and his crew — if the fate of the world was truly in their hands, couldn't they have come up with a better, more cohesive sales pitch? — or by Shyamalan's screenplay, which he co-wrote with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, based on Paul Tremblay's 2018 novel "The Cabin at the End of the World."

It's just not believable in any way, not as a parable and definitely not as a thriller. We get flashbacks to Eric and Andrew's life together as a couple and their adoption of Wen, which don't do much to help color in the spaces we desperately need colored in. We get a moral dilemma — if some dude told you that it was up to you to kill your partner or your child or the world would burn, what would you do? — that is never aired out or given a chance to breathe. Most of all, we get lots of time to wonder, "how's M. Night gonna Shyamalan himself out of this one?" and the twist, as it were, is that he never does. You're left with an unpleasant psycho-thriller, uneven in tone, that doesn't amount to much of anything, which announces itself early and never deviates from its dreary map.

The silver lining in all this is Bautista, whose imposing physique and soft-spoken nature have never been put to better use, and whose range is just beginning to be explored. He's shown before that he has the goods, but "Knock at the Cabin" feels like a new chapter for him. Unfortunately for Shyamalan, we've seen this book from him before. Once hailed as a master of suspense, he's time and again proven to be a master of disappointment, and "Knock at the Cabin" is no different. In his end of the world scenario, we're all doomed.

'Knock at the Cabin'


Rated R: for violence and language

Running time: 100 minutes

In theaters