It seems the end of the world is always right around the corner. When I was a child in the 1960’s and 1970’s, nuclear war with the Soviet Union was the big fear. Nuclear winter and radiation sickness were bandied about in news articles and opinion pieces. It even became the subject of a couple of TV movies. The one I most remember is “The Day After.” It showed the attacks by both sides and the devastation afterward. It didn’t look like a lot of fun. Other methods of worldwide destruction that have been made into entertainment include massive comets or asteroids wiping out most of humanity. Attacks by aliens are always a staple of disaster cinema. Recently, the fear of mutated viruses we have no defense against leading to a zombie apocalypse has been all the rage. Climate change is probably the most likely of all the scenarios put forth by Hollywood to cause us the most trouble. Rising sea levels, increasing average temperatures, more extremes in areas of drought and too much rainfall, longer lasting hurricanes and dying species of animals all combine to make life on Earth for humans more difficult. To fight climate change, we must make difficult choices in the short term so we can have more sustainability in the long term. A difficult choice is what faces a family in the latest film from M. Night Shyamalan, “Knock at the Cabin,” and the survival of the world’s population may be at stake.
Eric, Andrew and their daughter Wen (Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge and Kristen Cui) are taking a vacation at an isolated cabin in the woods near a lake. It is a beautiful setting, perfect for a time for relaxation. The peace and quiet is short lived however, as while catching grasshoppers outside the cabin, Wen is approached by a giant, tattoo-covered, but gentle man named Leonard (Dave Bautista). Initially afraid, Leonard quickly makes friends with Wen and helps her catch more grasshoppers. As they talk, Leonard explains that Wen must convince her fathers to let Lenard and his friends Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Redmond (Rupert Grint) into the cabin so they can save the world. Freaked out, Wen runs inside and locks the doors, telling her fathers there are people outside with weapons made from farm implements and begging them to not let the strangers in. The four intruders manage to gain access to the house and, after a brief struggle where Eric receives a concussion, the fathers are tied to chairs. Leonard explains the family wasn’t targeted because the men are gay, that it was only fate that led them all to be there on this day. Leonard and the other three intruders explain they are from various parts of the country, have very different lives and didn’t know each other before, but each experienced the same visions about the end of the world. The sea will rise and wipe the land clean, a plague will spread uncontrollably, the sky will crack and rain down on the land like glass and the world will be in perpetual darkness. Only the people in the cabin can stop this from happening. Eric and Andrew must select which of the couple will be sacrificed. The other then must kill them. If they don’t, one of the massive disasters will occur. If they never decide which of them to kill, Eric, Andrew and Wen will be left to wander the decimated Earth as the last people alive. Believing they are religious zealots, Eric and Andrew refuse to choose. Redmond gets on his knees, covers his head in a cloth, and the others beat him to death, saying a portion of humanity must now die. On the TV, the group watches as news reports of a massive earthquake off the Pacific northwest of the US has led to a tsunami that killed untold numbers of people. Andrew believes the news report is just a prepackaged show that the intruders have somehow beamed into their TV. Eric is not so sure. Could these intruders be telling the truth?
Based on the trailer, my hopes were high for “Knock at the Cabin.” While Shyamalan’s most recent work has been hit or miss (“Old” and “Glass” were both a miss for me while “Split” and “The Visit” were both hits), but I didn’t see how “Knock…” could go wrong. A fantastic premise, terrific cast, claustrophobic setting, the fate of the world possibly on the line: What could go wrong? Yet, something did as “Knock at the Cabin” is fine…just fine.
My first issue with the movie is the lack of any real peril for the family. It is up to them to decide who is sacrificed as the intruders can’t cause them any significant harm. If one of the intruders kills one or all the family, the end of the world will still come according to their visions. The choice of who dies must be willingly made and carried out. While there is violence and blood, it never feels consequential.
The film also quiets down after the initial intruder is sacrificed. There are long scenes of discussion between the captive spouses and their captors. Aside from an escape attempt by Wen, not much happens in the middle section of the film. Andrew continues to be the aggravated voice of reason while Eric is beginning to sway in his conviction their captors are delusional. That must be taken with a grain of salt as Eric has a severe concussion and his thinking may be altered, however the possibility they are telling the truth becomes stronger. Still, Eric doesn’t do much about his change in beliefs. It’s like Andrew is bullying him into agreeing and not expressing his views. It isn’t overt, but there are flashes of it. This middle section of the film is what really drags down “Knock at the Cabin,” which is a shame as there are some beautiful performances that go to waste.
Dave Bautista is a real surprise as the hulking Leonard. Quiet, intelligent, rarely threatening, kind to Wen, Bautista is playing against his physicality, keeping his performance small and compact. Despite his appearance, Bautista plays the role as a meek but desperate man. He’s on a mission that sounds crazy, even to him, but he feels it is the most important thing he has or will ever do. I know this film will be forgotten by next Oscars season, but I believe Bautista should at least be considered for an acting nomination.
Another standout is Kristen Cui as Wen. Sweet and smart, Cui plays Wen as anything but a stereotypical, too-smart-for-her-age child. Naturally Wen is afraid of what might happen to her dads and the world. As she sees the destruction playing out around the planet, Wen is also beginning to believe the strangers. Cui never overplays her cuteness and keeps Wen grounded in the reality of a very unreal situation.
Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge are both excellent at Eric and Andrew. Fighting to protect their family while trying to protect each other, the pair plays a far from stereotypical gay couple. There is warmth and compassion, along with a righteous amount of anger on Andrew’s part, as they try to figure out the best way to survive. We see early moments of their relationship: From a tense meeting of parents, to deciding to adopt, to picking up Wen at the Chinese orphanage, to a gay bashing at a bar, we are given a better look at not just where they are now, but where they came from. Groff and Aldridge play the pair in a way to make you forget they are men. They are just a married couple.
“Knock at the Cabin” is rated R for violence and language. There are a couple of fights that result in bloody injuries. The beating deaths of the sacrifices are mostly suggested with sounds and blood running down the victims. We see a character shot in the stomach. Another character is stabbed a couple of times. Foul language is scattered and mostly mild.
“Knock at the Cabin” has an intriguing premise based on the book “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul Tremblay (the ending of which is significantly altered by Shyamalan’s script). It would easy for any of us to see the dilemma Eric and Andrew find themselves in having to make a choice for one to kill the other based on the delusional sounding words of four strangers. If I had to choose between saving the world or killing my wife (or her killing me), I would say “no” immediately. I too would be suspicious of the alleged proof provided by the TV newscast. Still, despite everything going for it, “Knock at the Cabin” never gels into something truly amazing. As I said earlier, it’s fine but that’s about it.
“Knock at the Cabin” gets three stars out of five.
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