The twist in M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film comes at the beginning, not the end. The trouble with that arrangement is that a career of surprise-ending films, such as “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” has conditioned audiences to expect something juicy to be revealed at the eleventh hour, by which point, this apocalyptic head- scratcher has already played his hand.
“Knock at the Cabin” starts like a home-invasion thriller, with four armed strangers descending upon a remote cabin to perturb its occupants, except that none of the characters fits the stereotypes associated with the genre. First of all, the family renting the cabin isn’t what you might expect: a gay couple (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) with an adopted Chinese American daughter (Kristen Cui), perhaps 6 or 7 years old, with a cleft palate. The intruders are even more unusual: a second-grade teacher (Dave Bautista), a nurse (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a short-order cook (Abby Quinn) and a sketchy-looking “Harry Potter” actor all grown up (Rupert Grind). We’re told at some point that these four represent all the dimensions of the human experience, but that’s just bad screenwriting. None resembles a single human I’ve ever met, but then, Shyamalan isn’t known for creating recognizable human beings.
Hollywood movies rarely center on gay characters, and when they do, they usually make a big deal about their sexuality. It’s something of a breakthrough to discover that these two are just a loving couple like any other. The world hasn’t been particularly fair to them thus far, as a series of banal flashbacks eventually reveal (homophobic parents who don’t accept them, an adoption process that doesn’t accept them, a drunk bar patron who doesn’t accept them). Will American audiences accept them?
Handsome Eric (Groff), his picture-perfect husband, Andrew (Aldridge), and adorable young Wen are trying to enjoy a family vacation as far from civilization as possible when the four outsiders choose their cabin to break into. If Eric and Andrew were straight, the film might tease the implied or explicit threat of rape, à la “Straw Dogs,” but it seems to be a part of this sanitized thriller’s strategy to keep this “single-sex” couple sexless. They don’t touch or kiss or show physical affection of any kind. But the invaders can’t hurt them either, according to some “rules” decided on by Shyamalan and fellow screenwriters Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman (whose Black List-selected script the director overhauled).
The twist, as teased above, is that the fate of the world rests in this gay couple’s hands. Not those of Nicolas Cage or Arnold Schwarzenegger or the family from “A Quiet Place,” all of whom mainstream audiences readily accept and identify with in such situations. The ensuing drama hinges on an impossible decision, presented by Bautista’s Leonard — a big, bald mountain of a man outfitted in wire-frame specs and a dorky-looking costume three sizes too small that makes him look like one of those top-heavy “ Zootopia” water buffalo squeezed into human clothes: This family can save the world from Judgment Day, but to do so, they must decide to sacrifice one of their own.
What would you do if faced with the same dilemma? If Shyamalan’s film were the least bit effective, audiences would find themselves mulling that question, ideally even discussing it long after the credits had rolled. But it’s a preposterous proposition, and instead we look for the catch, searching the clues for some other explanation for what’s going on — because that’s usually what happens in Shyamalan movies. (This one was adapted from Paul Tremblay’s divisive horror novel, “The Cabin at the End of the World,” which may be the first book I’ve ever seen on Amazon with a user rating below four stars.)
What if the twist were that there is no twist? Instead, we get this “Killing of a Sacred Deer”-style thought experiment, minus the moral dimension that would’ve made it interesting. Eric and Andrew spend less than one minute of the film’s running time actually debating which of their family members they would choose to eliminate so that humanity may survive, focusing instead — as any reasonable person would — on why these nutjobs believe that some kind of biblical Armageddon is upon us. But let’s just say for a moment, because this is a supernatural movie from a director who’s taken ghosts and aliens and even superheroes seriously in the past, that this really is the cabin at the end of the world. Why should anyone believe that offing one of these three likable folks would fix things?
According to the aforementioned “rules” — which appeared to Leonard and friends through a series of take-their-word-for-it visions — the four visitors have traveled all this way to plead their case, but they can’t force or harm the family in any way. (In the novel, someone gets killed by accident, and that doesn’t change anything, since the death was not voluntary. Eliminating that shock from the screenplay also removes a key element of skepticism: Why should Eric and Andrew believe the intruders?) In order to show how serious they are, the four strangers threaten to sacrifice themselves every time the family says “no,” using their gnarly-looking homemade weapons to bludgeon and chop one of their cohorts to death.
It’s all quite unpleasant, but also relatively unpredictable, and that’s a plus. The cabin looks like a soundstage, the visual effects are cheap and unconvincing, and the acting is all over the place (like eavesdropping on auditions for different movies), but that’s all part of the Shyamalan brand. He’s had a hit-and-miss track record, and yet Shyamalan remains a master of tension. All that suspense builds to a grand anticlimax here, but at least the experience doesn’t let Us get ahead of the plot. If anything, it plays Funny Games with the genre, perversely asking us to empathize with The Strangers. You get the picture. “Knock at the Cabin” takes a premise audiences think they know and does something unconventional and (alas) frustrating with it. Trouble is, these days, it’s no surprise to be let down by a Shyamalan movie.