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Knock at the Cabin review (2023) - M. Night’s return to form

Knock at the Cabin is a tense and introspective thriller that will delight M. Night Shyamalan fans as well as audiences unfamiliar with his work

Knock at the Cabin review - Dave Bautista

Our Verdict

A highly-strung thriller that grows beyond its deceptively simple exterior

It’s fair to go into a new movie from M. Night Shyamalan being uncertain about what to expect. That’s not just because Shyamalan is so known for his twists – though he is – but also because the quality of his movies has always been unpredictable and uneven, too. There’s the occasional release that can rightly be described as a stone-cold classic, like The Sixth Sense; and then there’s The Last Airbender.

The wide spectrum of space in between is where the majority of his other movies lie. Regardless of their individual qualities though, Shyamalan’s pictures are more often than not brimming with ideas and imaginative energy, at least. He’s a director who can’t be cowed, and he will do what he wants the way he wants to.

In Knock at the Cabin, this creative guile is in full-flow as Shyamalan unleashes a smart, perfectly paced, and viscerally gripping thriller which is comfortably his best movie in some time.

Knock at the Cabin begins with the young Wen (Kristen Cui) collecting grasshoppers outside the log cabin which her dads (Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff) have rented for a restful vacation. She is approached by Leonard (Dave Bautista) who engages her in light conversation, before she spots other strangers walking towards her through the trees, dragging weapons.

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She retreats to the cabin and to her dads, who spot the oncomers and begin to barricade the house and arm themselves, ready to defend each other and Wen. The titular knocks at the cabin turn progressively more aggressive, before giving way to an all-out attack on the residence and its temporary inhabitants.

Naturally, this threatens to turn into a standard home invasion movie where a group of four psychopaths lay siege to a family staying in a remote cabin. Thankfully, it’s not that at all. The ‘invasion’ itself is over almost as soon as it’s begun, as the weapon-clad intruders smash through windows and crash down doors to overpower the family in mere minutes.

From there, the story really begins. The invaders tell the family that they’re not there to hurt them, informing the trio that they need to make a terrible choice, and that doing so is the only way to prevent an imminent apocalypse.

Knock at the Cabin review: Kirsten Cui as Wen

What follows is an increasingly paranoid, and increasingly desperate struggle between the family and the invaders as each tries to convince the other of what they know, or think, is true. For fans expecting a single moment where the plot pivots: that doesn’t come. Instead, the twist (though, it can’t really be pigeonholed into that definition) reveals itself throughout the movie. It plays with the established genre tropes, and conjures up something far more worthy and memorable along the way, with arresting moral ideas and genuine emotion.

That emotion is brought to the screen by each member of the Knock at the Cabin cast, who are entirely restricted to a single set. Each has their own grounded backstory, but it’s the performances, rather than the script, that sells it. Between this and Blade Runner 2049, Dave Bautista especially seems to have found his niche as someone who can put in quiet and thoughtful turns in neat juxtaposition with his man-mountain physique to create something genuinely unsettling. Groff and Aldridge also have a romance which is easy to invest in, and that investment has big pay-offs.

Beyond that, what elevates Knock at the Cabin above what it appears to be at first glance is that it treats its central premise with the seriousness and weight that it demands. That premise – what if fanatics were right? – is enthralling and gets under your skin, and allows the thriller movie to be read as a story about online radicalisation, religion, climate change, and more. Each of these interpretations (as well as any other) is valid and worthy, and Knock at the Cabin will be perceived differently by everyone who watches it.

Knock at the Cabin review: Ben Aldridge as Andrew

A lesser movie, and a less confident one, would fall into the trap of worrying about why the events that we see happen in the movie actually happen. But while Shyamalan lays this trap for himself, he doesn’t fall into it. Knock at the Cabin doesn’t get bogged down in the ‘whys’ or ‘hows’ and that discipline is an incalculable virtue because that’s not what Knock at the Cabin is about, or why it works.

Those mechanical factors simply aren’t interesting or relevant: they don’t matter. It’s the intellectual principles that are the driver of the tension, and the background to that is largely incidental, even if it does verge on becoming a pre-disaster movie in moments.

Knock at the Cabin review: Rupert Grint

Of course, as with plenty of Shyamalan flicks, while never slipping into outright horror movie territory there are still enough moments that’ll have you cowering behind your fingers. It’s also, sporadically, genuinely quite funny with humour that works within the context of the movie, rather than simply being crafted for a cheap laugh. This doesn’t diffuse the tension, but does give small moments of relief.

Knock at the Cabin isn’t an M. Night Shyamalan masterpiece, but it’s successful in being a movie that’s a crowd-pleasing entertainer, that also has genuine depth and something to say. It’s a taut, tense, and disciplined thriller with a central question that becomes more engrossing the more you think about it. And, once it grabs hold of you, it won’t let go right until the final moments.

The Knock at the Cabin release date arrives on February 3. For more, check out our guide how to watch Knock at the Cabin, or take a look at our picks for the best plot twists in movie history.