Looking back over two decades at the time when M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the screen with The Sixth Sense and took the world by storm, you’d be keen to remember how his early output precipitated multiple comparisons to Sir Alfred Hitchcock. Granted, it is impossible to separate his own self-mythologizing from the genuine third-party reception of his work – after all, the man has always had an ego, which is also perfectly acceptable. However, it is probably reasonable to assume that the truth lies somewhere between audiences responding so viscerally to Shyamalan’s inventive twist endings, critics pinpointing aesthetic inspirations Shyamalan drew from Hitchcock’s work, and the auteur’s own mythmaking.
Now, the trajectory of how Shyamalan’s career ebbed and flowed is known to anyone who hasn’t spent the last two decades in a coma and his descent to obscurity followed by the (relatively) recent re-emergence within the mainstream does not need to be recounted in full. Nevertheless, as time has gone on, M. Night Shyamalan’s filmmaking sensibilities have shifted ever so slightly to accommodate his evolving interests which – ironically enough – bring him closer to symmetry with Hitchcock, but not in a way he (or anyone else, for that matter) may have imagined. And his newest movie Knock at the Cabin proves it.
Shyamalan’s latest creation is an adaptation of a novel by Paul G. Tremblay titled Cabin at the End of the World and immediately drops the viewer into a predicament anyone versed in Shyamalan’s work will recognize as familiar. We see a little girl Wen (Kristen Cui) whose idyll of collecting grasshoppers is interrupted by a hulking stranger (Dave Bautista) who approaches her and with enough charm to raise a few flags endears himself to her. Or at least he seems to think so. Bautista’s character Leonard, in a Shyamalanian verbose manner engages in a conversation about grasshoppers and what he is there to do together with his three friends who are seen approaching. Wen surmises this encounter has crossed over firmly into “stranger danger” territory, so she retreats into the safety of the cabin in the woods her two dads Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) rented for what they hoped would be a quiet time away in the wilderness. This chance encounter at – as the book title suggests – the end of the world then reveals to carry immense gravitas, as the four invaders reveal their intentions. In a sudden twist of fate, Eric and Andrew will have to make a choice: sacrifice one of their family members or let the world be destroyed. At least, if the home invaders are to be believed.
This pretty much sets up the movie and attunes the viewer to what they already know to expect from an M. Night Shyamalan fixture – a suspenseful puzzle box which will attempt to pull the rug from under them. Now, I don’t think anyone at this point should be surprised when Shyamalan tries to tug on that rug as the movie approaches its climax. I think this is part and parcel of the Shyamalan experience, together with verbose soliloquies, heightened writing and themes of self-discovery the filmmaker has been consistently coming back to over the years. And this is how, ladies and gentlemen, M. Night Shyamalan has become Sir Alfred Hitchcock of his time. It is not solely due to the inventiveness of his twists, or the narrative brilliance of the set-ups he crafts.
After a few decades of making high-profile genre affairs, I don’t think anybody ever walked into a Hitchcock movie expecting a rom-com; however, he did make at least one in his salad days. I can only assume that audiences waltzed into seeing Vertigo, The Birds and Frenzy with some pre-existing expectations of what Hitchcock would indluge in. After all, he was known for knowingly plagiarizing his own output and gallantly surmising that “self-plagiarism is style” after all. So, it is only logical to assume that moviegoers of the era would buy a ticket to see a Hitchcock movie expecting to see a wrong man narrative, a twist towards the end, a Hitchcock blonde somewhere in the picture, some tongue-in-cheek lewd humour peppered throughout and – if they were lucky – some elevated voyeurism to plant them firmly in the headspace of the filmmaker. They weren’t necessarily watching these movies hoping to have their worlds rocked, but rather they did so knowing more or less what Hitchock would serve and expecting an entertaining journey through a familiar landscape.
Judging by what Knock at the Cabin attempts, this is quite where M. Night Shyamalan seems to be – straddling a familiar groove with what seems to be a fair degree of self-awareness. It is worth noting that at this point he is no longer choosing to write stories from scratch (Old was also adapted from pre-existing material), but rather scouting for stories he resonates with strongly enough to mould them to his liking. Which is also what Hitchcock did, come to think of it. Perhaps he knew what he liked and attached himself to projects that fell within the groove of that cosy familiarity he grew to cherish over the years; at least that’s what I can conjecture based on how his later movies come across.
Therefore, Knock at the Cabin will play to the seasoned Shyamalan veterans more like a best-of compilation rather than a wholly fresh artistic endeavour. In fact, it somewhat feels like a conglomeration of tropes found in The Happening, Glass and Lady in the Water, filtered through a narrative lens of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. What seems to dominate the filmmaker’s perspective is the idea of attaching a DIY mythology to simple narrative conceits and then mapping a fully functional allegorical interpretation onto the story he is telling.
As a result, the movie isn’t for everyone and perhaps it is most appropriate for those skilled in their Shyamalans. I would even venture a suggestion that Shyama-newbies should also look at the man’s earlier output first, because (a) a lot of thematic nuances will simply fly by them and (b) they may, quite unfortunately, find the movie a little bit pretentious. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Akin to literally all Shyamalan movies, Knock at the Cabin makes a conscious effort to separate itself from relatable realism by insisting on building an artifice, a membrane separating the world of the film from the world inhabited by the viewers. The characters take strange pregnant pauses every other second, Wen is almost too articulate for her own good and certain sequences abandon all logic while indulging in extreme time dilation for no other reason than conjuring a mood of frustrated suspense – something Hitchcock would fiendishly indulge in as well.
Put simply, Knock at the Cabin is an exercise in familiarity aimed squarely at those who are willing and able to give M. Night Shyamalan a break and perhaps a tacit admission that the man is a little bit tired of trying to win over the attention of people who are not interested in liking his storytelling. In some way, it may be seen as an artistic surrender because the movie truly doesn’t attempt to cover any ground Shyamalan hadn’t already covered. However, I choose to see it as an admission of comfort and realization that the man is finally happy where he is. It’s a safe Shyamalan experience that delivers exactly what you’d expect a Shyamalan experience would deliver – a puzzle box meant to be solved by mapping an allegorical interpretation onto it, elevated direction, outspoken earnestness bordering on cringiness (which ain’t everyone’s cup of tea, I can only surmise), and a return to explore the one theme which has always dominated Shyamalan’s modus operandi – the theme of self-actualization.
Knock at the Cabin fits within the context of Shyamalan’s entire body of work in that it is only interested in the characters finding out about the mechanics of the predicament they are in and realizing their role in the puzzle, which – once again – comes back to another theme Shyamalan has always remained married to, the theme of faith in the unknown. So, as much as it feels ridiculous to admit, the movie is a more-of-the-same experience that somehow feels satisfying because it is a more-of-the-same experience.
Which is why I feel that M. Night Shyamalan has finally metamorphosized into a Hitchcock lookalike. It is not because he mastered the man’s genius or because his influence on the form of filmmaking will have been seen as profoundly paradigm-shifting. It is because his movies have become so consistently familiar that they are their own genre. There have been many Hitchcock knockoffs and torchbearers of his legacy, but Hitchcock’s hand was impossible to mistake for anything else. The same goes for Shyamalan. Knock at the Cabin is a Shyamalan movie. That’s the review. Nothing more. Nothing less.