Review: ‘Knock at the Cabin’ (real wrath-of-God type stuff)

The apocalypse from Wish.

Wen (Kristen Cui) is collecting grasshoppers in the woods when she sees a man (Dave Bautista) approaching. Against her better judgment, the young girl listens to the man who calls himself Leonard, but when three more strangers arrive (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint) all armed with unusual makeshift weapons, Wen escapes into the cabin rental where her two fathers Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) are having a conversation. After the strangers force their way inside, an ultimatum is issued: the end of the world is nigh, and the only chance to save it is Wen’s family deciding upon and murdering one of their own — one willing sacrifice to spare seven billion plus lives.

Averting the end of the world has a history in Hollywood. The 1988 film The Seventh Sign played with these themes, where mankind’s time was done but a willing sacrifice could instill a stay of execution… you know, until the next time something calling itself God (with a big ‘G’) is fed up. Based on the 2018 Paul Tremblay novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” four strangers are charged to deliver this message, eliminating any guesswork, and see it done — unless it’s all a bunch of hokum, because everyone’s looking for the twist in an M. Night Shyamalan film. Is it a government agency, a supervillain testing sensitive nerve gasses, aliens playing God, or anything other than a mean invisible man in the sky with a magnifying glass treating humanity as ants? And if it’s all real, is carrying out such a decision really the best thing to do?

Mashed up like The Strangers meets The Seventh Sign, the inescapable factor in play is this: what kind of entity demands a willing sacrifice to avert an apocalypse? Any supreme being inflicting a lethal test of faith upon someone purely for its own amusement is going to be called out for petty bullshit in the most Thulsa Doom kind of way, and the most believable self-righteous decision is to let it all burn down while flipping a finger to the sky. Anything else is nihilism bordering on torture porn if people are going to die anyway, but Shyamalan has a secret: every death is off-screen, possibly the most ridiculous choice for an R-rated horror film, even one with dramatic overtones. Somewhere on the set of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Eric Idle can be heard lamenting, “Well, where’s the fun in that?” There’s also the glaring omission of calling out an Old Testament-style Biblical apocalypse, perhaps a plot point best avoided when your film appears to suggest no gay relationship should go unpunished.

To the film’s credit, every actor is on-point and acting their hearts out, and the cinematography sucks you in. Pairing an impending global disaster down to an intimate setting ramps up the drama while both characters and viewers decide for themselves what’s true. The relationship of the tasked couple is revealed through a series of meaningful flashbacks with a significant bearing on the final outcome. This is where the film shines but contributes to its stumble: what’s to come does not line up with how it got there, and a lack of comeuppance for the responsible party is really going to piss people off. This is where the 2011 film The Cabin in the Woods got it right: if this is what it takes to save humanity, then humanity can fuck right off.

With regards to books used as source material, the film version of The Mist was controversial yet satisfying because it gave a less-ambiguous ending than the Stephen King short story and lent to the horror as a whole; in Knock at the Cabin, a similar change from the ending of the book undermines the very thing the story seemed to be going for, and it shows. The final scene in the film spins everything before it into a mockery of itself, with all the impact of a bully repeating “stop hitting yourself.”

Knock at the Cabin is rated R for violence, language, and changing the book’s ending for the worse.

Two skull recommendation out of four

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