Spoiler alert: the climactic event of “Knock at the Cabin” is a book burning. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that, lest anyone deem Hollywood a solid front of liberal messaging, this new film by M. Night Shyamalan provides yet another hefty counterexample. In a year that has delivered such models of illiberal retrenchment as “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Tár,” and “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Knock at the Cabin” has the virtue of being the most daring, brazen, imaginative, and radical of them. It’s starkly posed as a conflict of faith against reason—and it presents a faith-based order that’s ready and willing to use violence in pursuit of its redemptive vision. So far, so apt. What’s jolting about Shyamalan’s film is its call to capitulation. The director puts the onus on the liberal and progressive element of American society to meet violent religious radicals more than halfway, lest they yield to even worse rages, lest they unleash an apocalypse.
Or, rather, the Apocalypse. The premise of the movie is the visitation, upon an ordinary American family, of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who aren’t all men and who show up not on horseback but by truck, and who turn a seemingly run-of-the-mill home-invasion thriller into a cosmic spectacle of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. It’s also a suspense film, in which just about nothing but the plot matters, and therefore any discussion risks being spoiler-y; I’ll be careful, but be forewarned. The family that’s vacationing in the titular cabin, isolated in deep woods and far beyond cell-phone signals, comprises Andrew (Ben Aldridge), a human-rights lawyer; Eric (Jonathan Groff), whose job is unspecified; and their daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), who discloses at the start that she’s nearly eight, and whom they adopted from China. The foursome of intruders is led by one Leonard (Dave Bautista), a soft-spoken hulk and second-grade teacher from Chicago; his companions are Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a nurse from Southern California; Adriane (Abby Quinn), a line cook at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C.; and Redmond (Rupert Grint), who works for a gas company in Medford, Massachusetts.
The first contact is made, in the woods, by Leonard, who espies Wen catching grasshoppers and gently tries to convince her that he’s a nice guy, not a creep, explaining that he needs to meet her parents and that it’s a matter of his job—“maybe the most important job in the history of the world.” (For a second, I thought he might be a film critic.) The foursome indeed knocks, and, when they’re denied entry, they break in by means of the weapons that they call tools: neo-medieval, seemingly homemade devices (such as a pickaxe and a mallet at the end of a thick broomstick). Then they make the demand that already went viral, long before the movie’s opening, by way of its trailers. The four intruders claim to have foreknowledge of impending disasters that will extinguish human life—unless this family chooses one member to sacrifice and then carries out the killing, and not by suicide. One trailer put the choice starkly—“save your family or save humanity”—but, of course, there’s no choice; they need to do both, and the movie’s main suspense is how they’ll manage to pull it off.
There’s no discussing “Knock at the Cabin” without disclosing another pair of salient details: first, the quartet is endowed with powers stronger than mere clairvoyance. They’re able to cause apocalyptic, high-body-count plagues and, in the course of the action, they don’t shrink from doing so in the name of a higher justice, or, as they say, “judgment.” (It’s never clear that the apocalypse that they foresee is anything more than the one that they themselves control.) Second, out of all the cabins and all the families that the apocalyptos could have picked, they landed on a place inhabited by a couple with whom they had history—one of the quartet happens to have been a gay-basher who attacked Andrew and left him with serious injuries as well as some non-Christian thoughts about aggressive self-defense. (That the basher’s real name is revealed to be O’Bannon, an unambiguously political wink, suggests the extent to which Shyamalan expects an L.G.B.T.Q. human-rights attorney to turn the other cheek, forgive, defer, and, yes, even obey.)
The action is punctuated by brief flashbacks to Eric and Andrew, in earlier days, that thinly and superficially sketch their backstory. It’s a notable effort—that suggests how misguided and wrongheaded Shyamalan’s approach to his own subject is. By striking contrast, the backstory of the four bearers of doom is delivered verbally. They tell their own stories, in a couple of superficial sentences, that have this in common: each of them was possessed of visions of apocalyptic destruction—horrific visions that caused them to give up their livelihoods and, at great personal cost, find each other and then find the one and only family that would match their vision and could redeem the world.
That backstory is the unseen, undeveloped essence of “Knock at the Cabin,” the story of four visionaries whose possession leads to a cross-country odyssey and a death-besotted showdown. Whom do they leave behind and how, how do they find each other, and what do they do when they unite? How do they find the family with the power of deliverance? What do they talk about, how do they plan, what persuades them of the actuality of their powers? (Did they practice their apocalyptic skills on a small scale, by zapping weeds or making a pond overflow?) How do they distinguish (if at all) their own ability to make worldwide mischief and their vision of the mischief that’s made independent of them by a higher power? What’s their sense of the morality of their quest? Why don’t they decide instead to cure cancer or end hunger?
The story of religious experience, of prophetic visionaries who go to seemingly mad lengths to prove the authenticity of their wild imaginings—this is the premise of some great movies that already exist, such as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Ordet” and Michael Tolkin’s “The Rapture.” The theme is so rich that there’s room for more, and a director standing in the line of these and other filmmakers can use it to prove their own art of imagination, imaginative sympathy, and spiritual curiosity (as many filmmakers have done, for instance, with the character of Joan of Arc, ranging from Dreyer and Robert Bresson to Jacques Rivette and Bruno Dumont).
Shyamalan betrays no such curiosity; he doesn’t appear to take such visionary experience seriously, but only its effect, as sheer power—essentially, as supernatural Hitlerians exterminating hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people by means of their own death cult. The drama that Shyamalan pursues is how reasonable and well-intentioned people can and should respond to possessed destroyers who hold them hostage. The movie’s answer is a sickening one.
“Knock at the Cabin” is an adaptation—or rather an extreme transformation—of the novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” by Paul Tremblay. The setup and the characters are essentially the same, as are the themes of faith versus reason, resistance versus compromise. But the action itself, once the quartet penetrates the cabin, is drastically different. That’s not a reproach to Shyamalan (on the contrary, many of the best adaptations are similarly extreme); rather, it’s the specifics of his own vision that border on the outrageous. The script (which the director wrote with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman) makes the foursome’s wrath, their willful bent toward destruction, all the more conspicuous. The film’s attitude toward resistance and moral responsibility, too, is altogether different from the book, in ways that conflate the intruders’ metaphysical and temporal power.
Whether it’s delusions of voter fraud and rigged elections, delusions of “woke” bigotry, delusions of Pizzagate-like conspiracies, delusions about the “deep state,” or delusions about the tyrannies of vaccines, American politics and American lives are filled with faith-like visions of absolute certitude about absolute bullshit. These visions are backed with the power of guns and money. In one sense, “Knock at the Cabin” is a warning about the knock at the door that may come for any of us under a regime of religious fascism—perhaps for having the wrong books in the wrong places. In another, Shyamalan is pummelling his viewers’ mental immune system, softening America up to accept and comply with even the outrageous and devastating demands of the religious right, lest its operatives and acolytes do even worse things. It’s a movie that takes the fight out of its viewers even as it takes the books out of their hands; it’s a work of anti-resistance cinema. ♦