Released 2023. Director: M. Night Shyamalan
WOULD YOU LET A LOVED ONE (OR YOURSELF) BE KILLED if it meant saving the lives of many others? What if I told you the death of one could save the entire world? One life for eight billion. Someone’s idea of a cosmic joke?
Humanity’s salvation is now an impossible choice facing Eric, Andrew and their young daughter Wen. A family trip to the woods turns nasty with the arrival of four strangers wielding crudely assembled weapons, forcing them to choose which of the three to be sacrificed in order to stop an apocalypse. No rational person would believe their nonsense.
Based on the novel Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, this is a reasonably suspenseful and intriguing mystery thriller, exactly the kind of movie you’d expect from M. Night Shyamalan. The mood is consistently tense, in large parts a result of the interactions between characters caught up in distrust and fear in a drawn-out home invasion.
Dave Bautista plays the leader of the intruders, a guy named Leonard who says he’s a schoolteacher. His hulking physique alone is sufficient to intimidate anyone into submission, but the actor never once raises his voice and is careful to show that despite his psychotic demands, the bespectacled and soft-spoken Leonard is a gentle giant who likes children. Makes you doubly unsure if he’s insane, zealous or actually benevolent.
Leonard’s associates, as he calls them, are played by Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn and Rupert Quinn. They are equally fervent in their cause, if not more so, and are conflicted, seething and at times apologetic. They don’t want to hurt you, but all the same they want one of you to die.
Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge play the couple whose family holiday turns into a nightmare. When talking sense with the intruders fails and one of them is concussed from the struggle, their survival instincts push them to fight for their lives, the world be damned. While their eight-year-old child Wen, played by first-timer Kristen Cui, may not grasp the absurdist horror unfolding around her, she gives a couple of the intruders the opportunity to show their “normal” and caring side, and let the audience know that they may not be complete monsters after all.
Meanwhile, TV news is reporting massive deaths resulting from widespread earthquakes and tsunamis. The end of the world has begun and the family has a choice to make, fast. Hang on a minute, as Eric and Andrew argue, there’s no logic to what the intruders are saying. How could the brutal slaying of one person in isolation have any immediate bearing on what’s happening around the world?
As long as the family refuses to sacrifice one of their own, the intruders will kill one of theirs instead when a new plague is unleashed. Those are the rules. The agonizing situation stretches on as disasters continue spreading globally. A viral outbreak kills scores of children, planes start to fall from the sky, lightning storms spark fires, people die, panic everywhere. And all it takes to put the brakes on doomsday is, apparently, for one person to do something.
Credit to Shyamalan for keeping the anxiety churning despite interrupting the momentum with a few flashbacks. The sense of mystery never dilutes and suspense is kept on an even keel. The intermittent flashbacks tell us more about how Eric and Andrew endured prejudice and violence because of their relationship, and how they adopted Wen, vignettes that serve to deepen our sympathy for the besieged family. Crucially, we’re never shown any backstory of the assailants, besides what little is gleaned by Andrew when he succeeds in breaking free. Eric likening them to the four horsemen of the apocalypse in the Bible is a sign that he is ready to give in to the demand, and to suggest they are more than four fanatics but messengers from some higher power.
Normally I’m not a fan of gratuitous violence. In the case of Knock at the Cabin, the restraint works against the movie. Every act of brutality – when the intruders are executed in sequence – occurs just off the frame when the grisly sights would have intensified the horror and desperation experienced by the hostages. In other words, we should’ve seen more blood.
The movie ends a different way from the book. Depends on how you look at it, you could say the movie has a happy ending, or not. There’s no point trying to parse any logic to the proceeding other than to take it as an allegory of how individual action can have far-reaching consequences.
Personal sacrifices, at times painful and unreasonable, is necessary to help achieve a greater good. Put in the context of what we’re facing today, the idea relates to a variety of scenarios including climate change, environmental protection, isolation and vaccination in the pandemic we’ve recently survived. The world has not ended in the COVID plague, thanks in part to sacrifices big and small from you, from me, and every other individual. That’s not what the movie’s about, but that’s what it makes me think of.
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