Thursday, February 2, 2023

How to stop the end of the world


  M. Night Shyamalan's Knock at the Cabin is based on a Paul G. Tremblay novel entitled The Cabin at the End of the World. Shyamalan's awkward transformation of Tremblay's title indicates what goes wrong with a potentially interesting movie.
   Not content to allow the audience to draw its own conclusions -- as the novel did -- Shyamalan steeps the story's conclusion in the kind of face-value thinking that undermines the screenplay’s stabs at ambiguity.
  Knock at the Cabin centers on two gay dads (Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff) who have taken their adopted Chinese daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) on vacation to a cabin in Pennsylvania.
    If an isolated setting in the woods didn't already signal trouble to anyone who has ever seen a movie, Herdis Stefansdottir's groaning score further tips Shyamalan's hand: A horror scenario involving home invasion will be flavored with quasi-religious suggestion.  
   It doesn't take long for four strangers to force their way into the cabin, carrying ominous looking homemade tools that bear little resemblance to anything available at a local hardware store. 
    Shyamalan gives us a modern version of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, harbingers of punishing global judgment: Dave Bautista's Leonard, Nikki Amuka-Bird's Sabrina, Rupert Grint's Redmond, and Abby Quinn's Adriane.
    A massive hulk of a man, Bautista's Leonard emerges as the stand-out character. In an early scene that's both lyrical and creepy, Leonard meets Wen. We wonder whether he might be the screen's latest serial killer.
   Instead, Leonard turns out to be a bespectacled second-grade teacher who speaks with alarming sincerity about his "mission." 
    He insists that he and his cohorts have had visions. They've been instructed to find this particular cabin so that global catastrophe can be averted. Only one act will stave off devastation. One of the family members must be killed by the others. 
    Are we watching a hoax perpetrated by four brainwashed strangers who we’re told met on-line or is this the real deal, the last days of humanity? 
    The home invaders have convinced themselves that their visions are real. They don't like what they've been sent to do but insist they have no choice. They implore the two dads to take action. When the dads refuse, the invaders kill one of their number and the global devastation begins.
    Leonard turns on the TV, and Shyamalan shows snippets of apocalyptic destruction. Tsunamis vanquish Hawaii. Planes fall from the sky.  
    Putting a child in danger and using the prospect of human sacrifice to drive the plot give the movie a warped undertow that's as distasteful as it is unnerving. For the most of the movie, the two dads remain tied to chairs.
     If a drama such as this is to work, we probably should be encouraged to ask ourselves what we’d do if faced with such a terrible choice. That level of involvement would have required a sense of identification Knock at the Cabin seldom delivers.
   Shyamalan creates tension as the dads try to find a way out of a horrible situation. But watching characters we hardly know struggle their way through the movie's reductive moral dilemma doesn't make it easy for us to find a way in.

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