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'Knock at the Cabin' lets M. Night Shyamalan shine

Universal Pictures/PhoByMo

The thing about M. Night Shyamalan is that you almost always have to decide if you’re willing to accept the obvious problems in his movies in order to also get the truly great stuff. This is not a hard decision for me, because he’s so good at creating tension and images or scenes that are genuinely stunning, and sometimes horrifying. But he is his own worst enemy, and this conflict between the two sides of Shyamalan is on display in his newest, Knock at the Cabin.

As the film opens, four strangers appear outside a cabin where two men and their adopted daughter are vacationing. The strangers insist they need to come inside and talk to the family, though the family quite reasonably has no interest in this. The strangers force their way in and tie up the family, then they get to the point—they tell the family that only the three of them can prevent the apocalypse, and they can only do so by choosing one of them to die, and the other two must be the ones to kill them. The strangers can’t do it. How do they know this? They’ve all had visions, and those visions have led them to this place, with exactly this information. And they are certain.

Of course, we aren’t certain, and neither is the family, and this is what drives much of the rest of the movie. And it’s a place Shyamalan can shine, as he’s so skilled at pushing and pulling us into believing one thing, then believing the other, and questioning everything we see. One aspect of his style that can sometimes drag him down is actually a benefit here, as his characters often talk or behave with a specific stilted oddness, but rather than take us out of the movie, this time it helps keep us off balance as the floor seems to shift underneath us.

Now, there’s a sincerity to the emotions in Shyamalan’s movies that’s also often pretty shallow, or maybe it’s naïve. And he gets himself into big trouble here with exactly that, as the movie’s eventual focus on the “purity” of the love the two men have for each other creates a kind of martyrdom scenario that lacks any nuanced understanding of people, and is ultimately distasteful. And I learn this is a major unforced error for Shyamalan: I haven’t read the book this film is based on, but the worst parts of this film seem to be exactly the biggest changes the director made from the book. But, again, this is M. Night Shyamalan, his own biggest obstacle, and we take the bad with the good. And fortunately, this time out, the good is great.

Knock at the Cabin is in theaters.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.