In adapting Paul Tremblay's chilling novel "Cabin at the End of the World" M. Night Shyamalan has neutered this thought-provoking tale. While the first half of the film is thrilling and taut, the second half trajects itself in the opposite direction to what made Tremblay's novel so memorable. I won't spoil anything along the way here but if you have read the novel, you will find this adaptation disappointing. If you haven't, you may see this as one of the better films Shyamalan has made in a while.
For that first half, Knock at the Cabin is some of the strongest direction M. Night has done. In a tense opening, we met Wen (Kristen Cui) the daughter of gay couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). She is collecting grasshoppers. Cui is naturally adorable and smart, instantly winning us over. Her conversation with her captive creatures is interrupted when Leonard (Dave Bautista) walks out of the woods. At first, he is kind and charming but things change when he begins to express that he is going to ask her and her dads to do something very difficult. Wen runs inside to get her dads while three other strangers emerge from the woods.
Leonard's associates include Redmond (Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Adriance (Abby Quinn). They soon explain that they want in the cabin to talk to Eric, Andrew and Wen. When they are refused, they break in and in the ensuing fight, Eric is concussed. Once tight up, Leonard explains that the four of them have all had a shared vision of the end of the world and that the only way to stop it, is for this family to willingly sacrifice one of them. At first, as anyone would, Eric and Andrew think they are crazy. Andrew believes they are targeting them for being gay.
On the surface, Shyamalan has crafted a story that deals with religious faith and sacrifice. The fantastic premise from the original novel forces anyone experiencing the story to ask themselves what would they do in such a situation. For a while, the film holds an ambiguous tension to it. As the film goes on, and especially as it veers from the source material, it becomes clear there are only two possible realities for this situation. Either this family is being targeted by insane extremists or it is about devotees of ethereal visions who convince a gay couple that the Bible is correct and the world can only be saved with one of them dead. The film wraps everything up in a clean way. While I can understand Shyamalan feeling the need to make Trembley's story more palatable, I do not understand the direction it goes in its final act. What was once a fascinating exploration on human nature and the forces of love, for good and bad, is made into an oddly preachy film about the power of blind faith.
Dave Bautista is fantastic in the film, regardless of my issues with the story. He deftly moves between being sincere and scary. It is a tough role and Bautista shows his full range in it. His massive frame is always at odd with his soft-voiced delivery, making Leonard a very compelling character. Amuka-Bird is also moving as Sabrina. She wears the weight of this horrible situation in every frame.
The film also is often visually impressive. The film's two directors of photography find great ways to shoot things in the small cabin. The blending of warm sunlight and dark shadows is also impressive. The old-school score adds a welcomed chill in the appropriate moments.
While this story is relatively simple, Shyamalan and his two screenwriters, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, have found a way to make it shallow. All of the possibilities of such a premise, the interesting nooks and crannies of it, are left unexplored by the end. Capped with an eye-rolling final moment, Knock at the Cabin is mildly effective but ultimately a letdown for fans of the original novel.