To watch an M. Night Shyamalan movie today involves asking yourself the same question over and over again: Is this good — or is it garbage?
With him the line between the two is floss-thin, and usually the honest answer doesn’t matter. “Old,” his 2021 film about a mysterious beach that rapidly ages anybody who sets foot on it, was a mess — but mindlessly campy-fun to experience.
Running time: 100 minutes. Rated R (violence and language.) In theaters.
“Knock at the Cabin,” the “Sixth Sense” director’s latest anvil, is less “Old” and more Old Testament. No fun here! Yeah, there’s much more competent filmmaking and acting on display, however it’s all wasted on a strained and ponderous story with stratospheric delusions of grandeur.
Based on Paul G. Tremblay’s novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” the plot delivers a first few minutes that are promisingly eerie. A creepy spectacled stranger named Leonard (Dave Bautista) approaches a little girl collecting grasshoppers by her vacation home in the woods and strikes up a “stranger danger!” chat.
There’s a shivery nervousness to the quiet opening scene, reminiscent of Mike Flanagan’s “Shining” sequel “Doctor Sleep.” We’ve got a sweet kid in peril, and big Bautista low-talking like a medicated Frasier Crane.
Then Leonard and his three freaky cronies (Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn) attempt to break into the remote Pennsylvania rental house, shared by Wen (Kristen Cui) and her dads Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), wielding what look like a wheat farmer’s torture instruments. They capture and tie up the family, and ghoulishly tell them they will need to make an unfathomable choice to prevent catastrophe.
We are then supposed to wonder, “Are these intruders psychopaths, or are they telling the truth?”
The answer is more boring than you’d think. Reality becomes bludgeoningly obvious as Shyamalan peels it back with casual carelessness. There are no enticing clues or puzzle pieces, only smack-in-the-face events. Even with those, the director’s signature reveals underwhelm and repeatedly involve meant-to-be-shocking TV news broadcasts that quickly peter out. M. Night is a visionary suffering from an astigmatism.
“Knock” is also obnoxiously pumped full of ripped-from-the-headlines issues — hate crimes against gay people, a fringe internet message board, a viral pandemic! — that are heavy-handed and ultimately have nothing to add except a few minutes. Shyamalan and screenwriters Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman do not capably use those lightning rods to create sustainable doubt about our final destination.
There is, however, some good in the wood. In happy contrast to “Old,” nobody will be cruelly mocking the acting over margaritas when “Knock” eventually lands on streaming. Groff and Aldridge make a believably agonized couple who struggle to protect their daughter and strategize how to survive. Groff is such an innocent, positive presence, and it’s funny how he keeps winding up in all these messed-up projects: “Mindhunter,” “The Matrix Resurrections” and now the poor guy’s tied up to a chair in PA.
Bautista overcomes the “Hear ye, hear ye!” quality of the writing and turns Leonard into an empath whose gears are always turning. He’s not outright terrifying, he’s unnerving — which is scarier. Grint, Quinn and Amuka-Bird have a little less to do, but they play their characters as convincing wackos who would’ve been welcomed with open arms by the Manson family.
I’m not ready to shove Shyamalan aside just yet, but let’s just say that “The Village” is starting to look better and better.