As the hulking Leonard (Dave Bautista) emerges out of the woods to approach young Wen (Kristen Cui) while she catches grasshoppers on the forest floor, director M. Night Shyamalan keeps the camera tight on the scene’s two players. In these early shots, we see Bautista from grizzled jaw to furrowed brow, and Cui from wispy black hair to delicate chin. We're directed to notice the way the light shines off his glasses, and the small pink scar on her upper lip. For the next few minutes, as Leonard and Wen get to know each other, Shyamalan stays this close, cutting from screen-filling face to screen-filling face. It's an early and forceful statement of intent (especially on a huge theater screen). Though this story will be apocalyptic in scope, it will remain intimately focused on people.
Soon Leonard is joined by three other strangers, Redmond (Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Adriane (Abby Quinn). All of them are wielding unidentifiable weapons made from wood and metal. Wen is terrified and runs back to the cabin where her dads, Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) are enjoying their vacation. Soon, these four strangers will break into the house, and it would be easy to see them as a force for violence. But, we can't, not fully, because Shyamalan began with Leonard and Wen, quietly talking beneath the trees. That meeting was too human, too gentle, for us to fully fear them. Even as Leonard explains the mortal stakes to his captive audience — that they will have to choose to kill one of their family members or the world will end — we can't stop believing that this towering man is essentially good, compelled to violence by something beyond his control.
This is the movie's greatest strength and it's only real weakness. At this point, Bautista has given quite a few excellent performances, demonstrating a range that has separated him from other wrestlers-turned-actors. As Sapper Morton in Blade Runner 2049, Duke Cody in Glass Onion, and Drax in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Bautista has shown that he plays characters, not just "Dave Bautista." Though he's 6'4" and hugely muscular, his performances almost always display a vulnerability that makes him compelling to watch. A Knock at the Cabin is the best showcase yet for that oil-and-water mix. The movie knows that Bautista — at least to look at him — is the last person you want trying to invade your home. But, this character is defined by softness, too, and Bautista is the perfect actor to strike that note.
But, the certainty that Leonard can't be wrong also causes some of the tension to dissipate. From the first moments, we trust that Leonard must have good reasons for doing this. Shyamalan, who became famous for his twists during his initial run of box office smashing chillers (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village) doesn't have any real tricks up his sleeves here. I was never, really surprised as Knock at the Cabin hurtled toward its inevitable conclusion.
Not surprised, but still riveted. Shyamalan's recent work, especially Old, has shown that he's more willing to play around with technique than most directors working at his level in Hollywood. Knock at the Cabin continues that trend. There's that initial conversation between Leonard and Wen which plays out in uncomfortably intimate close-ups. Shyamalan returns to the close-up throughout for the film's most dramatic moments, the lens unbearably close as Grint and Quinn beg Groff and Aldridge to make the choice. There's a flashback that shows one of the characters being assaulted at a bar where the camera follows the action just a hair too slowly to catch the assailant's face. There's the shot, showcased in the trailer, where Bautista lifts his makeshift ax and the camera tilts to follow it so quickly that we almost feel like we'll fall out of our seats. There's a moment where Grint is getting hit and the camera is mounted to the back of his body, jerking around as the punches land. There's Bautista's head looming large at the edge of the shots showing Groff or Aldrige bound to their chairs. Shyamalan is making choices throughout Knock at the Cabin that feel smartly designed to put audiences on edge in a way the plot can't quite pull off.
Though you might see where it's going, Shyamalan is making movies that are thrilling in their filmmaking, not just in their scripts. This concept could easily feel stagey, another "COVID movie," but Shyamalan is too interesting a director to make this (largely) one location thriller feel like a play. He knows where to put the camera, and Bautista knows how to play to it.
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