Saturday, February 11, 2023


There’s an intensity borne from earnestness in the films of M. Night Shyamalan. In his latest, Knock at the Cabin, the world is ending. Multiple cataclysmic events are piling up. One family, on vacation, unaware of the lurking global catastrophes, are about to offered an awful choice with the claim that it’s the only way to stop what’s already starting. No devotee of M. Night Shyamalan will be surprised that Cabin juxtaposes apocalyptic stakes with the sentimentality of familial love. He’s as open-hearted a genre filmmaker as ever there was one, using his total control of the camera for total emotional sincerity in his high-concept stories. This can cause discomfort in some audiences—shrinking back from such nakedly earnest emotional appeals, in which characters plainly pour out their souls. But it makes for such fascinating movies! He believes in his fictions, and in characters succumbing to theirs. At his best, it makes for tightly-controlled, high-concept thrillers wound around moving motivations and implications.

His films care deeply about the strength of family bonds, the sincerity of belief, and takes seriously the spiritual dimensions of genre dilemmas. Consider the doubting spirituality in Signs, in which a broken man of faith must find within himself the power to protect his family against unknowable otherworldly threat. Or the children held back by the rituals of their protective parents as the community bands together against the evils lurking in the woods beyond in The Village. Or the grounded superhero fictions trembling with violent real-world implications for parents and children in Unbreakable and Glass. Or the way time inevitably pulls parents and children apart even as it binds them together in Old. In Cabin, the family unit—two husbands and an eight-year-old daughter—is besieged by apparent fanatics whose ominous behaviors are said to result from prophetic visions. These harbingers of doom plead with the family to sacrifice for the greater good. Wouldn’t we all like to think we would? But, when told they must choose among their family for a human sacrifice, that choice is immediately difficult to even begin to contemplate.

The upsetting concept is inherently claustrophobic—captives and captors alike stuck in one small cabin while considering one tragic end or another. Shyamalan shoots dialogue in intense close-ups, tightly held on faces in long, lingering looks that fully take in the humanity of all involved. It’s uneasy, a tremulous tension held in the uncertainty of outcome balanced on the certainty of the telling. There’s a quasi-religious fervor to the invaders. Led by Dave Bautista in a rumblingly sensitive performance—is there a better actor working today at looking a muscular threat while speaking in a gentle softness?—these mismatched dangers confess to sharing visions—or are they delusions? They talk with soft-spoken fervor of their mission, and plead for their victims to heed the warning and make the choice. The family is tied up for most of the movie, wrestling with that question. One husband (Ben Aldridge) is resolutely convinced these antagonists are full of it. The other (Jonathan Groff) is afraid they’re starting to sound believable. Their daughter (Kristen Cui) is adorable and instantly sympathetic—sizing up the situation without being precocious. She’s aware of the dangers, sheltered from the worst of it, and willing to trust in her fathers’ resolve. The film rests on the question of who to believe, and, once believed, what must be done. It’s about the strength of a family’s love in the face of the potential apocalypse, and the necessarily painful nature of sacrifice. It’s all written in their eyes.

This is one of Shyamalan’s saddest movies, suffused with an eerie melancholy. Almost immediately, the conflict kicks in and the film knows life can never go back to how it was—for any of them. The suspense is pushed along by escalating violence, but it’s carefully composed bloodshed, more suggested and more unsettling for it. The ritualistic nature of its killings are given a nasty pull of inevitability and gathering force. And yet the fanatics are so matter-of-fact and sorrowful about it—they cry and lament and choke back vomit—that it makes their fantastical story of impending doom all the more believable. It’s hooked into a vivid spirituality that’s a sincere belief in the potential redemptive powers within all of us—for connection, for reconciliation, for transformative love, and for self-sacrifice. That leaves a movie that’s tremendously unresolved, and ends on a note that may or may not allow space for triumph or release, since it’s committed to leaving its characters in traumatized grief no matter the ultimate outcome.

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