Director: M Night Shymalan (USA, China). Year of Release: 2023
Pennsylvania, some woods in the middle of nowhere. A young girl with East Asian background is collecting grasshoppers, putting each one into a large glass jar, before giving it a name and writing down information about it in a notebook. While she is doing this, a man lumbers up. He is massive, and has tattoos all down his arms, but he has a genial manner. She says that she’s not allowed to talk to strangers, but he stays with her and wins her confidence by catching her a grasshopper.
The girl, who introduces herself as Wen, chatters along, telling the man – Leonard – about her two dads, who have brought her to a nearby cabin on holiday. Then, all of a sudden, Leonard’s tone gets sinister. He explains that he is here for the most important job in the history of the world. He’d like Wen’s daddies to let him and his friends through the front door, but they’ll get in one way or another. Three people appear carrying what look like Mediaeval instruments of torture.
As the film progresses, Leonard and his companions will introduce themselves. They are all ordinary people with normal working class jobs – a gas repair man, a nurse, a chef, and Leonard himself is a teacher. They are from different corners of the US and found each other following similar apocalyptic visions. They were guided by their visions to this cabin, and didn’t expect to encounter a gay couple. They are not homophobes, oh no (although it emerges that one clearly is).
Wen dashes inside and brings her dads in from the patio. From outside, Leonard once more addresses them civilly, but when that doesn’t work, he and his friends break into the house, and tie up the two dads. The explain that two of the family must choose to sacrifice the third person and then kill them. No-one is allowed to commit suicide, no-one may run away, but if they don’t do as required, everyone else in the world will be smitten and they will be left to walk alone.
When the dads once more refuse to take a decision, one of the invaders steps forward, puts a bag over their head and is bludgeoned to death by the other three. Leonard turns on the tv, to show reports of a whirlwind hitting the US West Coast causing massive fatal flooding. This is not the last “natural” disaster to take place, and almost all hit the English speaking world. Whether this is a comment on the parochial nature of US news or just lazy storytelling, I couldn’t possibly say.
The dads remain sceptical and tell the invaders that they are delusional. They offer various arguments as to why their captors are fooling themselves, but at no time does anyone ask the obvious question – just how is this supposed to work? An apocalypse is averted because a family kills its own? The sacrifice of one of their avengers immediate results in mass flooding? That makes two obvious questions: how exactly?, and what did you go and kill them for?
One could argue that all is an allegory, or that people have believed all sorts of weird shit, from the buyers of religious relics, to modern day conspiracy theorists. One could argue this, but what point is being made here? We are left with a binary option. Either that the apocalyptical threat only exists in the minds of the invaders. This is the only plausible option but one which is so obvious that it is banal. Or they are telling the truth, which means that the film has abandoned all logic.
If you are worried about plot spoilers, there are a couple of minor ones coming up, but it’s all so bloody obvious that it’s hard to get upset about being told in advance. It turns out that the invaders are right and climate change and epidemics are caused by the deeds of individuals,,rather than – say – political decisions. This is an insidiously reactionary and anti-science message. Materialism is out and natural disasters occur when people won’t sacrifice themselves to God.
In successive sentences the four invaders are said to contain the four basic human qualities – rage, feeding, caring and nurturing, and compared to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. We’ve come a long way from war, famine, pestilence and death. Again, although the film’s allegorical message is garbled, it seems to be blaming modern catastrophes primarily on people looking after each other. Once more, capitalist agribusiness and sacrificing safety for profit are let off the hook.
As well as the insidious message, some plot twists are just risible. Wen is allowed to run free all the time, although her attempts to run off and to give a dad a knife to cut his ropes are confounded. Both attempts happen in the day time, although there is no suggestion that she was confined over night time when everyone was sleeping and she was free to do what she wants. If anyone wants, I have a long list of similar plot points which are slightly petty but show how badly written it all is.
And this is the real problem with the film. Yes it has a reactionary message, and much or the plotting is ridiculous, but that’s not stopped me enjoying other unbelievable films. What lets this film down most of all is the pompous sense that it is telling us insightful examinations of the human condition when it is clearly making it all up on the fly. This is nonsense on stilts, something which has delusions of adequacy, but is just unable to deliver on any of its promises.
Which is a bit of a shame, really, because the story is based on an interesting premise which could have worked in the hands of a writer with the slightest bit of intellectual curiosity. And the acting – particularly, but not only, by Dave Bautista as Leonard – is almost universally excellent. So there are reasons for giving Knock at the Cabin a go. Unfortunately, neither plot nor intelligibility is one of them.