Saturday, May 25, 2024

Gay guys rule the apocalypse. With “Knock at the Cabin,” the latest from M. Night Shyamalan, and the “Long, Long Time” chapter of the zombie plague video-game-turned-HBO series “The Last of Us,” this fact can be now be officially confirmed. It’s a good thing too, because they’re the most interesting, fully formed players on screen – the only reason the series maintains an edge and that “Cabin” is more than just an outré M. Night “Twilight Zone”-inspired curio.

Since breaking in with “The Sixth Sense” in 1999, Shyamalan has largely made his buck with misdirection plot pivots that sometimes deliver (“Unbreakable” and “The Village”) and other times fall down woefully (“The Happening” and “Lady in the Water”). We won’t talk about some very bad departures from the format – okay, we will: the inert “After Earth” (2013) and inept “The Last Airbender” (2010) – but Shyamalan got back on track with the creepy grandparent thriller “The Visit” (2015) and the concluding chapters to his “Unbreakable” trilogy, “Split” (2016, in which James McAvoy is so good) and “Glass” (2019).“Old,” the 2021 film about a resort island where the aging process goes haywire, had promise and an excellent ensemble (Alex Wolff, Vicky Krieps and Gael García Bernal), but wasn’t quite top-shelf Shyamalan. “Knock at the Cabin” is a bit more the same. It starts with a couple (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) and their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), glamping at the woodsy structure of the title. Musty odors and squeaky screen doors this is not, with a spacious main room replete with a central fireplace, flat-screen TVs and columns of stately bookshelves nearly worthy of comparison to the square-jawed angularity of the dads, Eric (Groff, from the excellent “Mindhunter” series) and the rugged Andrew (Aldridge, of “Fleabag”). 

The vacation gets interrupted when Dave Bautista‘s hulking Leonard encounters Wen out catching grasshoppers and demands to speak to her fathers. Leonard’s got three friends, Redmond (Rupert Grint, very far from his ”Harry Potter” days), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird, “Persuasion”) and Adriane (Abby Quinn, “Torn Hearts”), a teacher, construction worker, nurse and a cook who come with garish homemade weapons. They share a vision of the world ending, and after tying up the dads home-invasion style (think “The Strangers” or “Funny Games”) give the dads and Wen an ultimatum: Choose one of the three to sacrifice to save the world. Are these four ostensible horsemen of the apocalypse crazy? And if not, why is god, Satan or an alien power giving us the mandate now?  

Reports on those televisions show tsunamis consuming beaches, planes falling from the sky and worse. Time is ticking down and a decision must be made, but there are rules: The four can’t harm the three – and don’t want to – but can restrain them. And one of the four must pay in flesh at the top of each hour if a decision isn’t made, enforced by the others with those ghoulish weapons. The film, based on Boston-area author and teacher Paul Tremblay‘s 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” becomes something of a stage play rooted in one locale, similar to Daren Aronofsky’s “The Whale,” and quite cyclical – nearly running out of gas before the final frame. What keeps it going are the performances by Groff, Aldrich and the scene-grabbing Cui, the humanity of their tribe delineated by touching flashbacks of how they came to be, cleft lip and all, the slow-emerging profiles of the four at the door and some awkward yet interesting veers into homophobia as a possible agent in the mix. 

Religious overtones and bigger themes feel tacked on and the final resolution feels like a plop in a lake, but hey, the dads and Wen are a fun lot to spend time with, be it woodsy recreation, cataloging nature or battling the evils of the universe to absolve all of humankind.


Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.