‘Knock at the Cabin’ Is a Morality Escape Room With No Emergency Exits

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A very large muscular man wearing a white, short-sleeved shirt and spectacles stands inside a wooden cabin. Behind him is a white woman with dark brown hair and a Black woman wearing a yellow shirt. They all look distracted and concerned.
David Bautista as Leonard, Abby Quinn as Adriane and Nikki Amuka-Bird as Sabrina in ‘Knock at the Cabin.’ (Universal Pictures)

If you’ve ever wanted to find out how much of a nihilist one of your loved ones is, go see Knock at the Cabin with them and have a little chat about it afterwards. The movie is steeped in complex moral philosophy principles. However your loved one feels about the last 10 minutes of the movie will tell you everything you need to know.

I’m going to try and get through this review with virtually no spoilers (it’s really a much better movie if you go into it knowing as little as possible), so I’ll just tell you the most basic premise. Adorable family — dads Andrew and Eric (Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff) and their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) — go on vacation at a cabin on a lake in the Pennsylvania countryside. One day, four strangers, led by the physically imposing Leonard (David Bautista dressed like a Mormon missionary), arrive and announce that humanity’s fate lies in the family’s hands.

If Andrew, Eric or Wen does not die by a method delivered by one of their own family members in the next 24 hours (no suicides allowed), everyone on Earth will die and the trio will be cursed to wander the desolate planet alone. Unsurprisingly, the family is not overjoyed at the prospect of being forced to murder one of the people they love the most, and fullblown fights and complicated conversations ensue. The questions are fairly obvious: Who is the sinister foursome? Why should the family believe them? And is there anything in the doom quartet’s stories that doesn’t quite add up?

Much of the movie is spent answering all of those questions, but there is never a dull moment.

Now, if you’re thinking this slightly preposterous premise sounds like a fairly thin plotline to spend an entire movie on, I’m right there with you. (“Could’ve been a Twilight Zone episode” was one of my initial thoughts when first hearing about the film.)

But don’t let the apparent flimsiness fool you. Knock at the Cabin is gripping throughout its 100 minutes, and there is of course more to it than I’m telling you. There are some brutal plot turns, and it helps that, for the most part, the family’s reactions to this dire situation are realistic. (Save for one unfortunate scene involving the dads, a bathroom door and Leonard that makes no rational sense.)

Knock at the Cabin is a morality play, but it’s a highly effective one. Flashbacks to moments in Andrew, Eric and Wen’s lives together allow us to emotionally invest in their fate. Andrew is pragmatic but hot-headed, while Eric is calmer and more open to things beyond his earthly understanding. Wen, a nature-loving child, simply doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, whether they be inside or outside the cabin.

It also helps that Andrew and Eric’s reactions and decision-making are influenced indelibly by their status as a gay couple who’s previously survived prejudice and homophobic violence. It keeps the pair grounded and skeptical about the strangers’ intentions in a realistic way. Andrew is also perfectly open about the fact that he’s just not sure that the rest of the world is worth saving.

No such elaborations are provided about the four strangers. We in the audience know only as much about these anxious, weapon-laden weirdos as the family does. And having to take the four strangers’ words at face value forces us, the audience, to examine what we would do in the family’s situation. Throughout, the movie asks us indirectly: How much of this would you believe? Can you trust any of these people? What would you do?

People still tend to expect big twists from M. Night Shyamalan tales, on account of his most famous projects, and 2021’s Old proved he’s still got it. But with Knock at the Cabin, the journey is ultimately more important than the destination. Though the movie provides a satisfying ending, the family wrestling with their own survival and what they owe to the rest of the world is the most enjoyable and thought-provoking element of the story to sit with. If there is a twist here, it’s in the conversations you’ll have with loved ones after the credits roll.

‘Knock at the Cabin’ is in theaters Feb. 3.