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‘Knock At the Cabin’ review: This apocalyptic thriller doesn’t seem as confident in its ideas as it hopes to be

M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of 2018’s The Cabin at the End of the World speaks of calamity but does too much in the process.

Universal Pictures

How far would you go to stop the world's end from happening? Could you bring yourself to sacrifice one of your loved ones to save millions of people? One group of people might say no. If the end is coming, I want to spend my last moments in the arms of my loved ones. Others might at least think about it. Well, that’s the central question (amongst many smaller ones) writer/director M. Night Shyamalan ponders in Knock At The Cabin – a psychological thriller adapted from Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World.

There are points within the film that capture the palpable tenseness of what such a decision would mean (suddenly discovering you have the keys to stop the apocalypse is scary, ok?) However, ideological themes of sacrifice, identity, and religious subtext don’t collide as neatly as the narrative would like. If the film had fine-tuned its focus on a couple of ideas it wanted to convey, the ending would have served as a delicate accumulation of the “prophetic events” shown prior.

Eric (Jonathan Groff) and his partner Andrew (Ben Aldridge) take their 7-year-old adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) to a beautiful cabin secluded out in nature for a vacation. In the opening moments of Knock At The Cabin, Wen is in the forest collecting caterpillars in a jar to research them – complete with a cute notebook in tow. Suddenly, she sees a large, muscular man walking towards her named Leonard (Dave Bautista). Obviously, this gives Wen cause for concern, but they talk briefly, and in Leonard’s calm demeanor, he expresses his regret about what he has to do.

At that moment, three other people emerge in the woods – a nurse named Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a cook named Adriane (Abby Quinn), and an angry rapscallion named Redman (Rupert Grint). All four have some weapon and, for some reason, need to get into this cabin to provide this unsuspecting family with a choice. These four random people have had visions of the world coming to an end, and to stop it, the family of three has to choose to sacrifice one person to save the world as they know it.

I mean, what choice do they have? This family is at the behest of people who have collectively bought into this shared experience (through a message board) that things are melting down. Shyamalan and co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman play around with this notion of belief. Perhaps if you think of the theory hard enough, you can find reasons to confirm it’s happening. The use of the cabin to set the stage and Jarin Blaschke's fine focal point on facial expressions invoke a real sense of fear.

Conspiracy theories can act like a virus taking hold of the mind, and the collective has seamlessly allowed itself to be taken hold by it. Are they merely victims of a shared delusion, or is there something more beyond the surface? Knock At The Cabin doesn’t simply present these four characters in clear-cut good and bad terms – if anything, they overly convey how sad they are that they are tasked to carry out these measures. The audience gets a moment to spend time with each person in their element to show this is clearly out of obligation to something scary has happened.

As coincidental natural disasters can be in conjunction with what’s happening in the cabin, the film also tries to tie in a real-life urgency to the story – something that it’s not as successful in doing. Throughout Cabin, Eric and Andrew’s backstory is inter-spliced with the context that the world is not accepting of their same-sex union before this moment. Their parents are completely non-committal and flippant, and Andrew himself experienced a hate crime that sent him into a justifiable survival mode.

Groff and Aldridge give off a delightful sense of hope and, later in the film, different viewpoints of what’s happening to them. All of the performances serve the story well. However, Knock At The Cabin hints that this event could be an extension of Andrew’s traumatic experience, but not fully committing to showing the actual weight of that realization. Rather, the film chooses to walk a tightrope of biblical prophecy, looking concurrently into people who might unknowingly use them against underrepresented populations.

Does a sacrifice feel as weighty as it could, knowing the subjects of such choice have already given so much? (Unfairly, I might add). It’s a question Knock At The Cabin asks, and when turned back on itself, it doesn’t have a clear answer to provide.