" I guess you used up all the ugly in the family "

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The biggest surprise about Knock at the Cabin is that it’s actually good. Arguably, it’s M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie since The Sixth Sense.

Permanent Midnight

Part of the fun of watching Knock at the Cabin is seeing if Shyamalan can avoid the landmines that have doomed most of his movies, seeing if he can avoid his own worst instincts as a filmmaker. There’s reason to be more optimistic going into the cabin because at least it’s not an original Shyamalan story. This one’s based on the book The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay — and Shyamalan collaborates with two other screenwriters, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman. So, there’s that glimmer of hope, as long as one tries hard to forget about the Last Airbender fiasco.

Dave Bautista
Dave Bautista

On the surface, it’s a ludicrous story, which fits well in Shyamalan’s oeuvre.

A gay couple and their adopted daughter enjoy a retreat in the woods. Their cabin is secluded; there are no neighbors, no distractions from the serenity of their setting.

That is, until a group of four come a knockin’. They all share the same vision: this family of three is key to staving off the apocalypse. But in order to do so, they must offer one of their number as a sacrifice. The four intruders are there to get to know the family and encourage them to make this difficult choice without coming across as menacing. That’s a major fail on the last point, but they mean them no direct harm. They’re just trying to save the world.

If one of the fathers or their daughter isn’t sacrificed, the rest of the world will perish. Cities will drown, plagues will set in, the sky will fall, there will be scorched earth. Darkness. Lots and lots of darkness.

There is a time limit to make this, the “most important decision in the history of the world.” At certain critical intervals, the foursome sacrifice one of their own, a jarring way to assert the gravity of the situation and spur them along to their destiny.

Boogie Shoes

At a superficial level, it might sound like Shyamalan’s gone woke. But that’s an unfair slant. This is too legit.

Unlike virtually every other Shyamalan movie, this one is rich with themes: conspiracy theories, fake news, the internet, the media, message boards, homophobia, love, trust, religion, mental illness, visions. It’s quite a loaded package.

For the most part, Shyamalan holds this one together well. A huge reason for that success is this one doesn’t rely on a twist ending, the kind that goes for Shyamalan’s patented version of shock value that all too often results in a faceplant. This one is more literal, but in the name of all that’s holy, don’t think too much. Don’t question things like the how and the why or the TV signal. Roll with it and enjoy the theatrical experience.

And enjoy the performances, which are also surprisingly strong. While Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) is good as Leonard, an even-keeled, bespectacled grade school basketball coach (of a team with a losing record), Kristen Cui — in her theatrical debut — steals the show as Wen, the 8-year-old daughter to fathers Andrew (Ben Aldridge, Spoiler Alert) and Eric (Jonathan Groff, voice of Kristoff in Frozen). The little girl is really good, which in itself is no small feat. And there’s also a dark turn by Rupert Grint, best known as Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter flicks.

Empathy and Tolerance

Kristen Cui
Kristen Cui

Knock at the Cabin starts with lots of close-ups on faces, creating an intimacy between the audience and the characters that helps compensate for their coming across as caricatures more than fully fleshed out humans.

But Shyamalan does cave to one persistent indulgence: he gives himself another speaking part. While this one is small and inconsequential to the narrative, it’s also a major distraction as Shyamalan places himself right at a pivotal moment in the narrative. Sure, it’s cute he found a way to insinuate himself into a situation involving a group of seven. But Shyamalan still needs to learn the art of the cameo.

For one thing, don’t speak.

Hitchcock he is not. And one quick note about Hitch’s modus operandi is that his cameos were always quick and unspoken. Over time, he also learned to make them earlier in the movie, so as not to serve as a distraction from the story. In that sense, they also became like a wink at the audience, saying, “Brace yourself. Here we go!”

If only Shyamalan would learn the sanctity of story and the downfall of ego. His cameo in Knock at the Cabin is purely self-serving, which in turn is an insult to moviegoers as he manages to jolt the audience out of an intense moment and mar an otherwise unusually good thriller, at least relatively speaking.