M. Night Shyamalan's “Knock at the Cabin” in theaters and John Swab’s “Little Dixie” on demand.

click to enlarge Dave Bautista, Abby Quinn, and Nikki Amuka-Bird look and sound like cultists in the latest from director M. Night Shyamalan, "Knock at the Cabin."

Universal Pictures

Dave Bautista, Abby Quinn, and Nikki Amuka-Bird look and sound like cultists in the latest from director M. Night Shyamalan, "Knock at the Cabin."

As an artist, M. Night Shyamalan is a little like Nicolas Cage: wildly inconsistent, profoundly weird, and incapable of being anyone other than himself. For these qualities among others, I am sympathetic to the Shyamalan project even if it means that I will get burned at the cinema routinely—personality goes a long way, and he is an authentic auteur for better and worse. Shyamalan films tend to follow a law that was once ascribed to “Star Trek” sequels: every other one is usually pretty good. Given that “Old” was an unexpectedly moving and volatile horror movie, it stands to reason that “Knock at the Cabin” is a dud. And that reasoning is correct.

“Knock at the Cabin” is an adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s 2018 horror novel “The Cabin at the End of the World.” If Shyamalan was a conventional filmmaker, he would have understood that Tremblay provided him a sturdy template for a siege thriller, with a bit of subtextual meat to boot. Lean and mean, “The Cabin at the End of the World” virtually reads as a screenplay already, and with Shyamalan’s still-vigorous sense of camera placement and movement it could have killed as an audience-goosing thriller. But Shyamalan read it and saw, well, as an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

Funnily enough, Tremblay’s novel also reads as an early-aughts Shyamalan movie, back when thrilling the audience was a concern. “The Cabin at the End of the World” particularly resembles a companion piece to Shyamalan’s 2002 “Signs,” which remains as scary as it is corny. “Signs” evolves into a siege story, with a faithless man piecing together past moments of his life, taking stock in order to surmount an unimaginable threat to his way of life. “Signs” is an unambiguous endorsement of faith, as pop-psych Christianity is a major ingredient of the Shyamalan brand. Tremblay’s novel substitutes the aliens of “Signs” for doomsday cultists and arrives at a thornier conclusion about faith: that it can affirm in the right circumstances, and that it also involves the deranging risk of misplacement. Faith without risk isn’t faith, which Shyamalan has never understood.

In Tremblay’s novel, and in Shyamalan’s adaptation, two kinds of faith are positioned in opposition. Four people who look and sound like cultists are convinced that someone in a small family—dads Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui)—must die voluntarily to prevent the apocalypse. The group breaks into the remote woodsy cabin where Eric, Andrew, and Wen are vacationing, ties them up, and attempts to convince them that they must orchestrate among themselves a sacrifice. Meanwhile, Eric and Andrew are equally convinced that they are the victims of a hate crime, and that these psychos are trying to brainwash a nontraditional family into annihilating itself. The dangerous kick of Tremblay’s novel is its implication that a symbolic hate crime may be justified. Maybe the fundamentalists are right after all. Yet the book doesn’t read reactionary, for the empathy that Tremblay shows for the family, and for how he contrasts the dueling crises of faith between hunters and prey. Eventually, everyone makes a startling gamble for their own belief system.

Shyamalan irons everything out so neatly that “Knock at the Cabin” comes perilously close to simply validating a hate crime. The collision-of-faiths motif doesn’t work nearly as well here because Shyamalan isn’t interested in ambiguities. He mutates Eric and Andrew’s crisis of belief into a fantasy of acquiescence to a higher power. They must humble themselves and go with the divine flow. If God is willing to end the world for the sake of abbreviating a gay marriage, then his will must be honored. Shyamalan is allergic to irony, but he’s superficially preserved the contours of Tremblay’s ironic novel, and so the result is a movie that’s positively insane with scrambled tones and meanings. Imagine an inspirational Hallmark movie about Abraham and you’re close to this movie’s mixture of self-affirming kitsch and straight-faced endorsement of mariticide for the greater good.

Give Shyamalan this much credit: faith matters to him. Every one of his films, from the wrenching “Unbreakable” to the awful “The Happening,” is a parable of maintaining faith in a modern world. And it isn’t just a trope for him: Shyamalan is clearly working through something. Even at its dullest and most belabored, which is quite a bit of the time, “Knock at the Cabin” hums with a lunatic obsessiveness. This quality is particularly evident when the group’s leader, hulking, childlike Leonard (Dave Bautista), first meets Wen out in a field in front of the cabin. They have a regular conversation, the sort that one might have with a little kid, yet Shyamalan shoots it as a series of alternating close-ups of Leonard and Wen’s faces. Two things register: Shyamalan’s poignant need to see these people, and dread, which arises from a seemingly misplaced sense of emphasis. Why isn’t this scene just tossed off in a medium shot? The close-ups alternate with shifting perspectives of the trees, which seem to undulate with malice. Then Leonard’s cohorts show up, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Ardiane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint).

Shyamalan’s gift for building dread will occasionally resurface, as “Knock at the Cabin” is full of his signature gliding camera movements, which tether people together in tight spaces. But his instincts for pacing are deadly off. The cabin is invaded seemingly in a matter of seconds yet it seemingly takes days for anything of consequence to happen. Characters are fleshed out after they’ve died, a potentially intriguing concept that Shyamalan doesn’t bring off here. Worst of all, Shyamalan has gutted the Tremblay story of its chaos. In the novel, the characters engage in a brutal war for the cabin. People you don’t expect to die perish horribly. Faith or not, life in the novel isn’t fair. Shyamalan cheeses everything up and turns the story into a series of monologues about faith, none of which have the urgency of Mel Gibson’s crisis in “Signs.” People die in “Knock at the Cabin,” but they struggle and die in an orderly manner. They might as well be handing off a baton to one another, and Shyamalan’s prudishness over the violence is a mistake. God’s wrath without wrath makes for a puny night at the movies.

Thrillers benefit from lawlessness, yet Shyamalan is too much of a fuddy-duddy to work you over. John Swab doesn’t have that problem, as he is a gore hound with a taste for sleaze. “Candy Land” was a minor miracle a few weeks ago—a gory slasher film with an unexpected sense of soul. I said that Swab was one to watch. Well, he’s back already with “Little Dixie,” an action thriller that mashes that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Commando” up with Sam Peckinpah’s “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.” I could’ve used more of the latter and less of the former, but Swab brings the recipe off. For people who miss disreputable ‘80s-era action, and I am among them, this is worth a rental.

Like Shyamalan, Swab imbues his lurid fantasies with social messaging, though he’s subtler and more reckless and less polished. “Candy Land” was driven by an anguish over, well, hate crimes, while “Little Dixie” and Swab’s earlier “Body Brokers” mix genre hijinks with protests against systemic corruption. “Body Brokers” meant well, but it couldn’t figure out the ratio of messaging to thrilling. “Little Dixie” is more confident. The first act establishes a series of connections between the governor of Oklahoma (Eric Dane) and a Mexican cartel that’s represented by a henchman, Cuco (Beau Knapp). Caught between them is Doc (Frank Grillo), a retired CIA-something who suffers the usual betrayals, kidnappings and attempted killings. Doc, named after Steve McQueen’s character in Peckinpah’s “The Getaway,” must set things right when Cuco kidnaps his daughter.

“Little Dixie” also initially suggests an episode of “24” that’s been shot on a budget. There isn’t much evident production value here, and so Swab leans heavy on close-ups of his macho actors bathed in garish lighting. This device gives the film an internalized intensity that it probably wouldn’t have had with pumped-up resources. “Little Dixie” takes a turn toward “Candy Land” at its midpoint, becoming a lurid odyssey among the forgotten and downtrodden. Swab’s sympathy for oddballs and his simultaneous willingness to torment them speaks of the conflicted sensibility that generally benefits the thriller genre. “Little Dixie” has a narcotic charge, and a terrific lead in Grillo, who was born too late for the job for which he’s best-suited: headlining 1980s-era John Carpenter movies. He’s a chiseled, craggy, old-school tough guy, with a streak of sensitivity to keep him from getting monotonous. Swab’s obvious affection for Grillo (they’ve done several movies together) promises a collaboration that will continue to nourish ambitious, stylish, yet unpretentious genre programmers.

Life’s tough, you take your wins where you can.

“Knock at the Cabin” is in local theaters now, while “Little Dixie” is available on VOD.



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