M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, the home invasion thriller Knock on the hut, probably won’t change anyone’s opinion of the filmmaker. It’s, every inch, a Shyamalan movie. For me, it solidifies a feeling that has haunted me for years: M. Night Shyamalan is my favorite director whose films I only half adore. He’s like an incredible conductor leading an orchestra through a forgettable symphony. I love watching him work, even if the work itself doesn’t leave a lasting impression.
TAP ON THE CAB ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
Hailed in the early s as the next Spielberg, Hitchcock and/or Serling for his tightly directed high-concept pop thrillers, Shyamalan eventually turned himself into a late-night punchline with a series of costly disasters. After ten years in the doghouse, he threw his hat over the wall and used the money his early career success bought to fuel his rebirth as an author of Blumhouse-style low-budget horror. Starting with his first self-funded film, 2015’s The visitors, he got his fastball back – at least as a director. He is a brilliant eye behind the camera. But the bizarre stories with recurring themes and ridiculous twists remain.
Knock on the hut adapts Paul G. Tremblay’s novel The cabin at the end of the world, but the premise is textbook Shyamalan: A family on vacation is held captive by a quartet of strangers who tell them the world is about to end, and the only way to avoid it is for the family to volunteer one of their own. Usually set to a single location with seven characters, Knock on the hut contains some shocking images and blood spatters, but is mainly a psychological thriller and thought experiment. It has the storybook or twilight zone quality that Shyamalan’s films often have, where characters with simple objectives deal with a problem beyond their comprehension. Like the beach that ages you OldThe dilemma Cabin has a lot of very specific lines that easily steer the story in the direction it needs to go. And like Signs (or actually most of his movies), Knock on the hut is about family and a crisis of faith, both in humanity and in a higher power.
The highest bill in this picture goes to Dave Bautista, who of the three former WWE World Champions currently starring in big budget movies, is the one who can actually act. One of the highlights of Knock on the hut watches as Big Dave deftly fills a role that feels like it was written for John Goodman, that of gentle giant antagonist Leonard. He’s a big, quiet, and even-tempered guy who can take you apart without breaking a sweat. He would like very much not to hurt you, but God didn’t give him much choice. Leonard and his cohorts are driven by visions they can’t explain (or are they?) to take three innocent people hostage in the woods, and their constant apologies and double entendres only make them scarier. The actual protagonists of the film are Eric (Jonathan Groff, Hamilton) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge, Spoiler alert), the happy couple who spend half the movie bound to chairs. Andrew has a well-deserved chip on his shoulder after a lifetime of being marginalized and abused for his sexuality, and is fiercely protective of the oasis of love and safety he’s built with Eric and their daughter Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui). He is well aware of how messy and cruel our world is, to the extent that he can dismiss possible signs of the apocalypse as everyday traumas of 21st century life. All the good is here, with him, now. Is there anything outside these walls worth saving? Andrew provides most of the film’s structure as the other characters, particularly his saintly partner Eric, are merely functional.
However, the real star of the show is M. Night Shyamalan, whose camera work remains a marvel. The most of Knock on the hut takes place in a single room with the protagonists trapped in a stationary position, and yet Shyamalan is constantly finding new ways to frame the space, the characters and their relationships with each other. He slices the room in half, isolating characters, putting them at odds, shifting the balance of power with every push or pan. Subtlety isn’t his thing, but where his heavy-handed screenwriting can quickly become exhausting, his very literal compositional choices are somehow just right for the money. Shyamalan is the kind of director who can make even the most casual viewer aware of the camera. (It’s one of the reasons why David Sims and Griffin Newman of the Blank check podcast call him a “starter kit director”.) Maybe that’s not always a positive thing, but it’s half the fun of watching Knock on the hut or any M. Night movie, is the feeling of watching an artist make choices very hard. I almost stop at the script being sweaty or obvious, or the characters seem subservient to the movie’s big idea.
And so I walk away Knock on the hut with the same mix of opinions as when I saw it Old in 2021: M. Night Shyamalan is probably a genius, and I especially like his new movie. This may not be the handiest takeaway for a reader deciding whether or not to spend their hard-earned cash at the movies this weekend, but it’s fair enough. Shyamalan has long elicited hyperbolic reactions from critics and audiences alike, but after 15 films in his career, I think most of us know where we stand.
Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.