What’s The Movie? Knock At The Cabin
What’s It All About, JG? A gay couple, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their daughter Wen (Kristin Cui) are vacationing at an isolated cabin somewhere in the woods. Wen is approached by Leonard (Dave Bautista) while out collecting grasshoppers. Turns out Leonard and three of his cohorts believe the world is about to end in a religious apocalypse and the only thing that can prevent it is one member of the family killing another. They must decide who should die and they have to do the deed – suicide won’t cut it. So who will die, the gay guy, the other gay guy, or the young girl? And are the four cultists/zealots right in what they say about the end of the world? They believe so fervently that every time the family refuses to murder each other, the zealots kill one of their number while a terrible natural disaster occurs. Eventually, one member of the family does indeed kill another as the evidence for an Actual Apocalypse adds up. Is it real? Anyway, the world is saved but only after all four cultists are dead. Was it all just in their heads? Na.
Why Did You Give It A Go? Because it was comparatively well reviewed and another “return to form” for M Night Shyamalan (after all the other ones he’s had). So yeah, a nice, tense little horror/psychological thriller movie might hit the mark on a Friday night, why not?
Is It Any Good? Not especially. It’s not a complete disaster but that’s mostly because of the cast rather than the writing. Dave Bautista is simply great as Leonard, a very quiet, mild-mannered guy that looks like he could rip the world apart with his bare hands. He’s a compelling presence and justifiably the last of the zealots left standing. He manages to anchor the film in a way that it very badly needs and lends… well, not credibility (the movie has zero of that) but some kind of relatability at least. Much of what surrounds him is complete bullshit but he manages to make it all seem like it might not be. Until the movie gets to the point where it clearly is, anyway.
The rest of the zealots are great too. Though he doesn’t last too long, Rupert Grint continues his career of playing rather sad-sack characters extremely well and he’s got a good line in built-in misery. The other two members are rounded out by Nikki Amuka-Bird and Abbey Quinn, both of who turn in top-tier work in roles that really need conviction to make them work. As a group, the four religious zealots are a compelling presence.
What’s wrong with the movie is basically “much of the rest of it”. Saying that there are some effective moments. The tension once the group reaches the cabin, breaks in, and delivers their supposed-to-be-stunning revelation (or should that be Revelation?) is one of the film’s real highlights. The weird weapons they bring with them, Leonard’s obvious compassion for the couple and their daughter despite what he’s asking them to do… all of this creates a real sense of drama and tension. Do they mean what they’re saying? Are they just there as gay bashers using religion as an excuse? Could what they’re saying actually be true? The ambiguity that the film lends these characters in those moments works well and helps ratchet up the tension.
It doesn’t last very long though. Because it becomes abundantly clear, fairly quickly, that there is in fact no tension at all because what these characters are saying is literally true. The world will end if one member of the family doesn’t kill another. This becomes apparent in some increasingly-silly news footage of things like planes falling out of the sky or natural disasters happening which unintentionally recalls the hilarity of one of the best comedy movies of all time, The Happening. But really, even before then, there’s no ambiguity at all, and that just drains all the interest from the film because it’s reduced to an exercise in don’t-bore-us-get-to-the-chorus. The cast gamely tries to keep things going but even with a fairly brief 100-minute run-time this oftentimes drags.
The small, claustrophobic environment of the cabin ought to drive tension when it comes to the details of the plot but it never really does and any reveals about what’s going on in the wider world is reduced to being clunky exposition. The idyll of the cabin ought to contrast with the horror of what the zealots are asking the family to do but somehow it never does. There are plenty of bits of the movie which, in strict isolation, look like they should work but it never coheres into anything. So no, saying this movie is good overall is simply too much of a stretch, despite a few compelling elements.
How Many Of These Have You Seen? By no means a complete set of M Night movies, but a scattering to know enough certainly. And there are honestly few movies in existence that have given me as much entertainment value as The Happening, if not for the reasons Mr. Shyamalan might have originally hoped for (to be fair, the Rifftrax crew help enormously there). Anyway, I’m not a fan or anything but his name attached to a project is usually enough to scare up some kind of interest. Ahem.
Would You Recommend It? Nope. As mentioned, it’s not completely awful but in the end, it’s just terribly difficult to care about. It’s nice to see a movie like this where the lead couple is gay – there’s no particular reason they need to be, other than a bit of a maybe-they’re-homophobes beat that doesn’t hang around long enough to be especially impactful (although it turns out also that one of them had been and had co-incidentally attacked the couple in a bar. This is not a convincing plot thread). And we’re led to believe that the reason Eric and Andrew and their daughter have been chosen for this horrific task is that their love is completely pure and unsullied. That’s not often the way gay love or a gay family is shown in mainstream media either, so that’s nice. And though you might want to raise an eyebrow at a movie whose conclusion is “one gay guy has to die for the world to be saved”, there’s clearly effort being put into representation here and the film (and source novel) deserve some credit for that.
Yet M Night Shyamalan just doesn’t seem to be able to get out of his own way enough to let the film breathe and work. The opening scenes between Leonard and Wen (and serious props to Kristen Cui by the way – a fantastic child actor) are shot in supposedly disconcerting close-up but – as is often the case with Shyamalan as a director – just ends up being over-used and as a result comes across as either annoying or silly (or both).
There’s also the unbelievably clunky symbolism of Wen trapping grasshoppers in a jar – y’know, just like the family are about to become trapped! That’s really not clever, Mr. Shyamalan, though you do manage to scrape an extra five minutes or so of run-time out of a small child cataloguing her insect collection. Oh and of course there’s the obligatory director’s cameo, which comes as the worst possible moment. The film had, in those moments, started to build up a nice bit of tension, until M Night’s face pops up on screen (in an infomercial this time out) which just ends up completely taking you out of the moment.
Then there’s the apocalypse itself, portrayed on-screen as some “cost-effective” CGI lightning, roiling dark clouds, a few voiceovers, and some cheap phone footage that’s presumably meant to suggest verisimilitude but actually just looks… well, cheap. A few planes pirouette out of the sky, often lacking only a wheee! sound effect to complete the hilarity, a Big Wave Is Big, and so on. When the movie reaches the point where it shows its hand and admits that what Leonard and the others have been saying is right all along, it ought to feel more… well, dramatic really. The world – all of it, everyone – is genuinely at stake here and either one of two relatively nice gay guys or their adopted daughter must die. So break out of the cabin and show us the good stuff! I know this isn’t a disaster movie but what we have here is woefully inadequate and suggesting stakes. The footage of the apocalypse gathering pace is so poor it gives the impression that it might be the Sharknado guys behind the end of the world rather than some unseen hand of God.
Anyway, eventually one of the gay guys kills the other – Andrew kills Eric, as if it really matters at this point – and Eric and Wen drive off to confirm that the catastrophes have really subsided, which they have. M Night Shyamalan resists the temptation to have a final his-usual-modus-operandi twist in the closing moments. That’s restraint that deserves praise. It’s just a shame that impulse isn’t more in evidence throughout the rest of the movie.
Scores On The Doors? 5.5/10