Audiences have a love/hate relationship with the director once dubbed “The Next Spielberg.”
Fans flocked to M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Split,” while they savaged his bountiful misfires (“Lady in the Water,” “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender”).
That leaves “Knock at the Cabin” as his most curious effort. It’s … fine. The third act doesn’t sink the film, and the trailer’s eerie vibes reverberate from start to finish.
What’s missing? That singular chill Shyamalan musters in his very best movies.
Dave Bautista stars as Leonard, a hulking stranger who approaches a little girl outside a Pennsylvania cabin. He forges a fast bond with young Wen (Kristen Cui) over grasshoppers, but he isn’t there to talk entomology.
He’s part of a four-person troupe warning Wen’s gay parents Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) they have a choice awaiting them.
The world will end unless the family makes a terrible, unavoidable sacrifice.
Is Leonard and co. eager to exploit an innocent family? Could they be targeting the trio for homophobic reasons? Or is their dire vision about to come true?
Shyamalan, working with co-screenwriters Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, set the pieces in motion with stunning speed. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know what’s coming, but “Cabin” wastes little time getting there.
That’s a blessing and a curse. Can the filmmakers keep our attention for 90-plus minutes given that brisk set-up?
It helps that Bautista’s gentle giant shtick is impressive and long-lasting. Leonard isn’t using his bulk to make the couple decide the fate of humanity, or their version of it. He’s soothing, warning the family what will happen if they ignore his warning.
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Along the way Shyamalan teases out some real-world scenarios, from the rise of conspiracy theorists to the fears gay men face in modern society.
The latter thread brims with cliches, and it’s the least interesting part of the director’s vision.
Shyamalan is famous for big swings and even bigger misses. “Knock at the Cabin” feels different. He’s working on a smaller canvas, both visually and thematically. There aren’t many storytelling options to consider, and that reduces the thrill level dramatically.
That, and a recurring sense of loss that quickly proves predictable.
How very un-Shyamalan.
NOTE: Shyamalan’s playful cameos are a winning part of his canon, but this film’s close-up could be his best.
“Knock at the Cabin” forcefully reduces the options in play. Most of the action takes place in the titular cabin, and the flashbacks flesh out little of the Eric/Andrew dynamic. It’s a shame “Cabin” takes so few risks with the gay couple in question, following approved narratives without much in the way of introspection.
Good thing Cui reminds us how good Shyamalan is at directing young actors. Her presence matters, ramping up the stakes in play.
Is one child worth … everything?
Shyamalan often injects faith into his narratives, and there’s a spiritual element here, too. He’s also playing with the notion of family, and how far parents will go to protect their children. it’s one of his most charming tics, and something absent in the work of many mainstream directors.
“Knock at the Cabin” packs a third-act wallop, which won’t surprise any of his fans (or foes). What’s most shocking is how you’ll likely see it all coming.
HiT or Miss: “Knock at the Cabin” delivers a thoughtful spin on apocalyptic storytelling, but the film’s first act suggests a slam-bang finale that never materializes.