‘Knock at the Cabin’ Proves Shyamalan Might Still Have It (if he ever actually did to begin with)

Fifteen years ago I stepped out of a stuffy movie theatre with my dad on a muggy summer’s afternoon after spending 91 minutes seeing Mark Wahlberg play a science teacher that fought trees – the former point being the more absurd part – in M. Night Shyamalan’s horror-thriller, The Happening. As we walked towards our car, my dad began ruminating on the film and over-analyzing its deeper meaning, if one indeed did exist.

Though as he blabbered on, I couldn’t get one thought out of my head: “that might be the worst movie I’ve ever see.” Mind you, I was fourteen years old at the time, so the catalogue of films I’d seen up until that point may not have been too expansive, but it was enough for me to discern what I felt made up a ‘good’ movie, and The Happening certainly wasn’t one. I couldn’t get past the ludicrous narrative and poorly written dialogue, made worse by stilted and at times laughable performances. It might’ve been the first time I actually understood what made a truly ‘bad’ movie, and would use it as a baseline for future films.

Now, more than a decade later, I’ve come to realize just how pivotal that movie was. Not for me as a cinephile – I’d never give The Happening that much credit – but in marking what I would consider the true downfall of M. Night Shyamalan’s career. Though ‘downfall’ would indicate that one was at a certain place of prestige to begin with, and aside from one, possibly two films in Shymalan’s now two decade-spanning career, I’d argue there wasn’t much ‘grace’ from where he had the room to fall from.

But maybe that’s a little harsh, so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the filmmaker’s career to see his highs, and many, many lows; ending on taking a quick look at his most recent feature, Knock at the Cabin, which showed me that there might still be an inkling of something left for us to not continue disregarding Shyamalan’s abilities behind a camera.

The Breakout Three

After a debut film that garnered little to no response, Shyamalan would go on to woo the world with what many (if not all) still consider to be his greatest work to this date in, The Sixth Sense. Released in 1999 and starring Bruce Willis and Toni Collette, this psychological thriller would go on to nab a whopping six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture at the 2000 Oscars. Touted as having “the greatest plot twist in film history,” The Sixth Sense is still considered to be one of the greatest horror films of all time, and rightfully so. With two Oscar nominations in his back pocket, the then 29-year old Shyamalan seemed to have Hollywood in the palm of his Pudecherry-born hand.

“I see dead people…”

Bruce Willis would return to work with Shyamalan in his next film, Unbreakable, which co-starred Samuel L. Jackson. Though this superhero-meets-thriller raked in nearly $250 million at the box office, its critical response was more tepid when compared to the director’s previous outing. Receiving a commendable 3 out of 4 stars by the great Roger Ebert himself, who largely enjoyed the movie but criticized its ending, Unbreakable was a very solid follow-up that added nicely to Shyamalan’s still fresh repertoire; even if it didn’t break new grounds.

It would be in his next film, Signs, where we’d start seeing – excuse the pun – signs of concern when it came to Shymalan’s filmmaking capabilities. Though standing at an overall positive of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, most critics agreed that Shyamalan was losing his way when constructing his narratives; relying far too heavily on trite twists that were executed with a lack of cohesion or sense. Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian wrote, “[Shyamalan] must now find new ideas — maybe working with someone else’s scripts. Because his film-making identity is in danger of fading.” Though it was once again a box-office success raking in an eye-watering $408 million, the sci-fi thriller remained (and still remains) divisive amongst the public; though the warning bells wouldn’t be going off just yet, as that wouldn’t happen until a couple years later.

The Horrible Four

2004’s The Village would be the beginning of the end as far as quality of work is concerned for Shyamalan’s filmmaking career. Though the film has its fans – for whom I have my sympathies – it was largely panned by critics, calling out the director once again for his failed twist endings that made little to no sense. Bryce Dallas Howard would return to star in his next feature, Lady In The Water, which currently stands at a 25% on Rotten Tomatoes, though it wouldn’t be the lowest score the aggregate site would give one of his films, as that honour is held appropriately by 2010s debacle that is, Avatar: The Last Airbender, which stands at a pitiful 5%.

This was after 2008s, The Happening, which I’ve made my thoughts on quite clear in our opening paragraph. This unholy tetralogy of films would go on to make Shymalan a household name for all the wrong reasons. His name itself became a meme on both the internet and mainstream shows like SNL for admittedly hilarious jokes. And yet, Shyamalan’s career would go on.

Mark Wahlberg playing a high school science teacher? Only in a Shyamalan movie.

The Rest & Knock at the Cabin

If there’s one thing you can say about M. Night Shyamalan’s films it’s this: they make money. From The Village, to The Happening, to The Last Airbender, all of his films have been box office successes. And because that’s all Hollywood ever cares about, they keep tossing money at the director so that he may continue to make whatever weird idea he has next; to the detriment of his audience’s brain cells.

That part doesn’t surprise me. Hollywood is capitalism, and capitalism doesn’t care for a good story, unless it makes money. What does surprise me, however, is how Shyamalan continues to attach big names to his projects. From Joaquin Phoenix, to James McAvoy, to Gael Garcia Bernal, Shyamalan manages to get some really good talent for his movies. Either the studios are writing really fat cheques, or Shyamalan throws really good parties.

Dave Bautista is easily the most talented actor amongst the WWE wrestlers.

He’d continue his string of mediocre films throughout the 2010s, though with a seemingly notable highlight in 2016 with Split, starring James McAvoy who plays multiple characters. Though I haven’t seen the movie myself, reading about it does have me intrigued. It wouldn’t be until last month, June 2023, that I would sit through my first Shyamalan movie since The Last Airbender—I needed a decade to wash myself of that experience. Knock at the Cabin, starring Dave Bautista, is an apocalyptic psychological thriller based on the book, The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul G. Tremblay.

The first scene of the film proved promising, with appropriately used Dutch angles and a quiet suspense permeating throughout these woods as we’re introduced to Dave Bautista’s character talking to a little girl named Wen. As we get further along, however, some of the classic Shyamalan-isms begin peeking its ugly head. From awkwardly written exposition dialogue that say nothing, oddly framed shots with unnecessary lens flares, to dramatic moments that play out a little goofy simply because of the nature of the plot itself. Still, I can’t say I was having a bad time.

By the time we rolled credits, though the ending wasn’t as daring as I’d have liked it to be, diluting the thematic through-line of the film, I was fairly impressed at the overall execution of the story that was told. There were some genuine moments of tension and suspense that were made better by appropriate editing, a couple of impressive shots, and all the performances landed, for the most part, the way they needed to. Dave Bautista in particular impressed me quite a bit. He brought a genuine warmth and serenity without ever losing the ambiguous nature of his character.

I was…surprised. I can’t say, like many others have, that “Shyamalan is back,” because again, for me, he was only ever ‘here’ with one, possibly two, of his films in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Knock at the Cabin is nowhere near those films, especially the former, but it is indicative that Shyamalan still hasn’t entirely forgotten how to direct a movie. Maybe he should just keep directing them from here on out and let someone else do the writing.

Shaz Mohsin

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