Updated: Mar 5
It seems M. Night Shyamalan receives the comeback treatment every ten years or so. After a filmmaking drought that included Lady in the Water, The Happening (yikes), The Last Airbender (more yikes) and After Earth (even more yikes), his return to relevance began with 2015's The Visit, a low-key, but effective horror that highlighted the Academy Award nominated director's penchant for building supreme tension and dread.
In 2016, Shyamalan reached a high nearly in tune with his The Sixth Sense days, with the release of Split, a bone-chilling kidnapping tale/supervillain origin story that featured an amazing performance... er, performances, from a severely underappreciated James McAvoy (and served notice to the budding talent of final-girl-of-the-day Anya Taylor-Joy). Split placed Shyamalan back on top and the Steven Spielberg comparisons re-emerged.
The native Philadelphian fell back to earth with 2021's Old, the conceptually-interesting-but-poorly-executed thriller where vacationers discover a secluded, unescapable beach that causes them to age rapidly - decimating possible decades of life down to a single day.
Shyamalan went back to the drawing board with his latest feature, Knock at the Cabin. Adapted from the 2018 Paul G. Tremblay novel The Cabin at the End of the World, Knock centers on a vacationing family who is cajoled by four intruders to make a decision that could determine the fate of the entire planet.
Knock stars Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn and Rupert Grint. Tension rises early as a seemingly innocent conversation between an unusually lost-looking Leonard (Bautista) and seven-year-old Wen (Cui) leads to a standoff, then home invasion. Leonard, appearing to be the leader of four intruders, tries to convince Wen's adoptive parents, Eric (Groff) and Andrew (Aldridge), that an impending apocalypse can be prevented if they execute a heart-wrenching sacrifice.
Shyamalan's latest may be his most straightforward project. Plot twists became standard-issue, but instead of providing an "aha" moment, he opted for character development and a subdued story that relied on tension and uncertainty. That is a refreshing alternative from the bevy of movies with big action set pieces and senseless explosions and destruction (although with a rumored $20 million budget one could argue going big simply wasn't feasible). So the path Shyamalan chose added gravitas to its daunting subject matter.
Also, performances made a huge impact. Bautista provided the most impressive performance (yes, Dave Baustista, the former WWE wrestler, is a good actor) as he played Leonard with nuance, conflict and conviction. Groff, who was fantastic on Hamilton and (most especially) Netflix's Mindhunter, is also memorable. Eric is the audience surrogate - he heard and saw just enough to consider believing Leonard, thus providing an excellent counterbalance to Andrew (a solid Aldridge), whose refusal to remotely consider his intruders' proposition made for the most conflict.
Overall, everyone sold their performances - a must considering nearly all of Knock's 100-minute running time takes place at one location.
Knock at the Cabin is a thrilling tension-heavy story that is more thought-provoking than scary, but still contains plenty trademark Shyamalan moments. This is worth a look, even if it lacks a twist. Coming in with that expectation doesn't do Shyamalan or this film justice.
So is Shymalan back? Based on his latest - sure. Despite slipping with Old, he hasn't really left - not this time around. JV
3.5 out of 5 stars