The Grasshopper Catcher
Let’s say you’re a muscular and intimidating looking dude. Exactly what are you supposed to do with yourself? Rip out tree stumps for homeowners? Loom menacingly for fifty bucks an hour? The basic understanding is that Big Burly Dudes (BBDs) have limited career paths, and that’s simply the way of the world.
Is that fair? Of course not. The vast majority of us have a BBD in our lives, and they’re probably not doing things like wrestling grizzlies or kicking over cars. My friend Bob is a card-carrying BBD. He’s also a phlebotomist, and the mere fact of having inhuman strength has nothing to do with his career of withdrawing blood.*
Dave Bautista is one of our beloved BBDs. I don’t know if he was always a walking mountain, but I do know that, after making some not great choices in his life, he used bodybuilding and wrestling as a way to put himself on a more positive path. Wrestling led to acting, and a combination of skill and luck got Bautista the role of Drax in the MCU Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.
Here’s the thing, though. If you’re a BBD in Hollywood, you usually have three options for career paths:
- Menacing villain
- Action guy**
- Comedy guy***
Bautista has realized he can only play Drax for so long before it gets repetitive. He’s done action and comedy, but in interviews, he’s yearned to be taken seriously as an actor. Blade Runner 2049 was his first taste of that, and now he’s in a leading role in M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin. It’s a vulnerable and complex performance in a thriller that’s unafraid to go hard.
What should happen is a nice vacation. Eight year old Wen (Kristen Cui) has arrived at a remote Pennsylvania cabin with her dads Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). The plan seems to be that they’ll do a whole lot of nothing. They splash around off the dock. Wen heads off with a jar and a makeshift grasshopper habitat. She plans to catch them, record their behavior, and let them go unharmed.
What does happen begins with the arrival of Leonard (Dave Bautista). He’s a gigantic man who looks like he could tear you in half without much trouble. But there’s something in his eyes, a deep well of sadness that he’s incapable of shaking. Leonard introduces himself to Wen and, as you can imagine, she’s a little unsure of the huge man with the mournful eyes.
She’s right to feel that way. Leonard is joined by Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint). They’re all armed with strange, cobbled-together weapons. They tell Wen she needs to let them into the cabin to talk. Wen bolts inside and fetches her dads and, after a short struggle, the interlopers make their way in.
So what do they want? To avert the apocalypse. Leonard explains that he and his group have experienced visions, and those visions delivered unto them a divine certainty. In order to prevent the destruction of humanity, Wen and her dads must make a terrible choice. The question is, is this a home invasion or mankind’s last chance?
What kind of a movie is Knock at the Cabin? It’s the kind where, at the end of my screening, a man stood up and yelled, “Jesus, somebody wanna give me a hug?” Despite a somewhat uneven filmography, M. Night Shyamalan remains one of our more interesting filmmakers. That’s partially due to his skill making claustrophobic thrillers, but I think tone is where Shyamalan excels. He’s able to take some frankly ludicrous ideas and, by providing them real gravitas, he causes us to take them seriously. This film is no different. He jacks up the suspense, way past the point where it feels fun, and creates a tangible sense of approaching doom. That also means this film feels more fatalistic than Shyamalan’s other works. It’s been said that he might be working though something, and while that could be true, have you seen the general state of the world these days?
The screenplay by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman adapts Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World. With the exception of some sizable tweaks in the third act, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation in terms of tone and themes. Shyamalan has rewritten the initial script to fit his sensibilities, and there are two things you should know. First, the dialogue retains Shyamalan’s weirdly stilted formalism. Most of his films feature people speaking in a way that almost sounds normal but isn’t. That formalism works here, since it creates an unreality to the situation. Second, Shyamalan gained his reputation by being the “twist at the end” guy. There isn’t much in the way of a twist here. Instead, Shyamalan’s focus is on characters forced into making an impossible choice.
That focus is one of the places where things get interesting. The main action at the cabin is interspersed with flashbacks showing the history of Eric and Andrew’s relationship. We see a moment of parental rejection, the adoption of Wen, and Andrew’s decision to buy a gun after being assaulted at a bar. When he’s asked to make a choice to save a world filled largely with terrible people, Andrew responds with the notion of, “Why should I?” Eric is the more level-headed and empathic one in the relationship, and as time goes on, he starts to wonder if Leonard’s group might have a point. Those clashing outlooks by people who profoundly love each other gives the dilemma real weight.
Shyamalan is an actor’s director, and he excels at drawing out strong performances from his casts. I liked the natural relationship between Jonathan Groff’s Eric and Ben Aldridge’s Andrew. Aldridge is particularly good with balancing his love for his family with his seething contempt for the invaders in the cabin. He’s positive they have been targeted for who they are and that the religious talk is sheer nonsense. To watch Dave Bautista’s Leonard is to understand that there’s nothing nonsensical about his zeal. He’s not a standard kind of fanatic who’s enthusiastic about causing harm. Leonard desperately does not want to be in this situation, and he especially doesn’t want any harm to come to Wen. Bautista has a shattered look in his eyes, and we can see he hates what he’s compelled to do, but how can he deny God? Those characters are sketched so well that it’s a shame Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint, and Nikki Amuka-Bird aren’t given more distinctive roles to play. They do good work, but they strain against underwritten roles.
A BBD can work on the Large Hadron Collider, attend Le Cordon Bleu to learn the peak of cooking, or study public policy at a shadowy think tank. In Dave Bautista’s case, a BBD can become a talented and thoughtful dramatic actor. Knock at the Cabin is a gripping film made with a specific kind of care. It wouldn’t work nearly as well without Bautista’s mournful zealot. He took a big risk taking this role. It’s paid off.
*He’s not ripping arms off to get to the blood. At least, I don’t think so…
**The risk-averse Dwayne Johnson does most of his work in the Action Guy realm.
***Comedy Guy is where John Cena has migrated to, and he’s possibly one of the funniest comic actors working today. For proof of this, give Peacemaker and Blockers a watch. You’ll thank me later.