A Plague on this House — Knock at the Cabin
When I saw Old a couple years ago, I commented on the fact that M. Night Shyamalan had a solid idea on his hands that could have been insanely compelling, but that almost all of the fun and suspense of the film was lost because of his over-reliance on twist endings. As I said back then:
“Imagine if Shyamalan did that for a change? Create a film that is completely antithetical to his usual trademarks (NOT The Last Airbender!). No twist, no red herrings, no cameo. Just a straightforward thriller with fully fleshed out characters that unfolds with natural progression and elevation of stakes. How amazing could that be? We may never know.”
Well, when his latest project, Knock at the Cabin was announced, I thought maybe, just maybe, my hypothetical had come to pass, as Shyamalan made it clear in the press junket that there was no twist this time, focusing instead on what he believed was going to be a pure exercise in tension. Then I saw the movie and discovered that only the first part of my wish had been granted, and what remained was a consternating mess that alternately patronized and insulted the idea of rational thought in service of apocalyptic nonsense that even Shyamalan himself calls attention to in order to preemptively self-diffuse criticism for what turns out to be a very problematic conclusion.
This movie has exactly three things going for it. The first is the aforementioned lack of a twist. Knowing in advance that the story wasn’t going to try to be too clever for its own good at least allowed me to engage with the material. Unfortunately, that material is some Grade-A horseshit. The second is the fact that once you get past how ridiculous Dave Bautista looks as primary antagonist Leonard, there is a genuinely intriguing character leading the suspense. Third, as I mentioned when I mocked the trailer last week, the film features Rupert Grint in his first movie role since the 2015 British comedy Moonwalkers, and his first major part outside of the Harry Potter series.
Everything else in this project is ill-advised to say the least. Just as in his last film, most of Shyamalan’s characters are completely one-dimensional, and a major part of the underlying concept rips off The Cabin in the Woods, to the point that the man should honestly have his lawyers issue some kind of official statement to try to pass it all off as coincidence. It would be extremely difficult, given the Signs-esque assertion within this movie that there are no such things, only divine will, but he should at least try. That last bit of course leads to the biggest sin of all, that absolutely nothing in this picture makes a lick of fucking sense. The plot does raise the stakes as it goes, but when everything at risk is mind-bogglingly stupid, how is anyone supposed to care?
Unfolding mostly in real time (with a few flashbacks inserted to break up the action and advance the timeline ever so slightly), the story takes place in a secluded cabin in a Pennsylvania forest. No word on if there are any luddite civilizations nearby pretending to be monsters to scare people from wandering off. There, a young girl named Wen (Kristen Cui) is seen catching grasshoppers in a jar (a character trait and hobby that never gets examined in any meaningful way; at best it might be a parallel to the biblical plague of locusts), and instantly, I care nothing for her wellbeing after she catches a bug and names it “Caroline,” but spells it “Keroleine,” which, sorry, no. If you spell your name like that, you are wrong. She’s approached by Leonard, who introduces himself and tries to become friendly with her. Quicker than you can say, “Stranger Danger,” he’s joined by three disparate associates, all of whom carry “tools” — makeshift weapons crafted from actual household items — and Wen runs inside to her adoptive dads, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). The titular knock comes 10 minutes into the movie, which makes you wonder why we’re bothering with the rest of the runtime pretty quickly, and eventually all seven main cast members are gathered in the living room.
The quartet of home invaders introduces themselves as if a 6-year-old on the spectrum were accosting them on vacation to ask their names, hometowns, and occupations (hear how silly that sounds, Night?). There’s Leonard, a second grade teacher, youth coach, and bartender from Chicago, and the very notion that an elementary school would hire him is laughable based solely on his appearance. Joining him are Redmond (Grint), an electrical worker from Boston, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird, who also appeared in Old), a nurse from Los Angeles, and Adriane (Abby Quinn), a flighty cook and single mother from Washington. The four of them have no connection to each other, except for the fact that they all had the same vision of the end of the world, and came together to prevent a catastrophe in the manner that their visions describe. Eric, Andrew, and Wen must agree to sacrifice one of their lives and be killed by the other members of their own family. For every instance where they refuse to decide, a massive plague will be unleashed upon the world until the entire population is killed, save for the three of them, who will wander the wasteland of a devastated planet alone.
Now if all of that sounds like some of the bullshittiest bullshit to ever bullshit, you’re not alone. What are these visions? Where did they come from? How did the four people find each other? If the entire population of Earth is at stake, “all seven billion” as Leonard puts it, then why are the four potential saviors conveniently located in the United States? Why can’t they just kill a member of this poor family? Why is there a rule that it can’t be a suicide? Apart from the third question I just instantly thought up (they met on a message board), absolutely none of this is answered in a satisfying way. It’s just stated that this is the way it has to be, with no evidence to back any of it up, just lazy exposition whenever it’s convenient to the plot for someone — usually Leonard — to say it.
As proof of their so-called prophecy, the group turns on the television at periodic intervals so that Eric, Andrew, and Wen can see the devastation on the news, but even that doesn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny. A major earthquake in the Aleutian Islands causes a tsunami, followed by another one shortly after the TV is turned on (the segment begins with Shyamalan’s cringe-inducing cameo as an infomercial presenter for an air fryer). The report then cuts to first-hand footage of a tidal wave.
Now, think about that for just one second. How is that possible? How can someone film a tsunami, get swept away by it, and somehow edit the video and send it to news organizations? Yeah, that happens. Never mind the more easily explainable aspects of this idiocy, like the fact that both earthquakes happen in an area of the world known as the “Ring of Fire” because of its high tectonic and volcanic activity, so this sort of phenomenon isn’t that far-fetched. Never mind the fact that the first earthquake happened four hours ago in the movie’s time, and that people were evacuated safely before the second one. Never mind the fact that subsequent demonstrations of almighty wrath are shown on different news stations (including the BBC) without anyone in the cabin ever changing the channel! We’re meant to believe that someone on a beach had the ability to record a tidal wave coming to kill them, and maintained the feed throughout, including somehow sending it to the media, all while dying. Fuck! You!
Now thankfully, Eric is there to call out some of this stupidity in the moment. In particular, he notes the earlier earthquake, as well as the fact that Leonard and the others constantly check their watches, as if this was all choreographed. But in the first of many baffling choices to justify his story (adapted from Paul Tremblay’s 2019 novel, The Cabin at the End of the World), Shyamalan undercuts Eric’s reasonable skepticism in the face of madness by framing his entire objection within the context of a persecution complex and personal grievance because the entire world didn’t instantly accept him and Andrew as a gay couple. He’s convinced they’re being targeted because of their sexuality, and won’t hear any argument otherwise, which allows Shyamalan to paint Leonard and the others as tragic crusaders who believe the family was chosen for the exact opposite reason, that their love was the purest of all.
It’s like Shyamalan really liked the idea of a modern version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and didn’t bother to go beyond what he thought would be a cool representation. Each of the four is dressed like the mythical beings, in that they’re each wearing the same colors as those from the Book of Revelation. Redmond wears red, Leonard white, Adriane black, and Sabrina a “pale” shade of yellow. Each of the “judgments” they feel have been rendered to mankind correspond with interpretations of the same calamity, as well as their one-note characterizations. Leonard offers the chance for salvation but warns of pestilence, and one of the plagues is a literal pandemic that targets children. Redmond, the most outwardly confrontational, represents war. Adriane, a cook, is there to ironically stand in for famine. And the pale rider, Sabrina, brings the harbinger of death as someone who works to save lives in hospitals. It’s an intriguing concept, I’ll admit, but the execution is so blatant and obvious — including Andrew outright saying that they’re standing in for the Horsemen at one point — that we can’t enjoy the symbolism because the director seems to have little to no respect for your intelligence.
Shyamalan wastes so much energy on what he thinks is some grand idea that he ends up wrecking his own story. Clear, logical thought is dismissed as bias. Andrew starts to believe what’s happening is true, but only after he’s severely concussed. And worst of all, throughout the whole of the proceedings, the overarching message seems to be that if you really do believe in something otherworldly enough, then murder is justifiable.
That is just disgusting, and a complete squandering of whatever potential and momentum this story might have had going for it. There was a legitimately enthralling moral dilemma buried in this parade of gratuitousness, and if there was even the slightest degree of nuance to the proceedings instead of an all-in approach to objective insanity, it could have worked. Instead, as Shyamalan and his cast continue to figuratively and literally beat each other over the head with ideas that are easily and eminently explainable, the only real suspense becomes the degree and extent to which reason will be abandoned in favor of a Kirk Cameron level of doomsday lunacy.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Would you buy the quartet’s story for even a second? What is it about gods determining humanity’s fate through cabin-based ritual sacrifice? Let me know!