In M. Night Shyamalan’s There’s a Knock on the Door, it’s immediately clear that someone is going to die. Also, that it will be an unforgivable murder for a greater cause. Both things are mixed, in a brutal premise. Andrew (Jonathan Groff) and Eric (William Ragsdale) are a married couple who must make an impossible decision. One of them will have to kill the other or his daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) to avoid the end of the world. At least, that’s what Leonard (Dave Bautista), Redmond (Rupert Grint), Ardiane (Abby Quinn) and Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) say.
The group makes it clear that it is not a crime or a homicidal impulse, but a moral responsibility. The decision is in the hands of its terrified victims. “We won’t kill them,” Bautista’s character says. “You will choose who will die.” Then they just wait for what is predicted to happen. Whether it is an abominable event or what they explain, it will be the apocalypse.
Of course, the argument is based on faith, so similar to a religious act that the director does not differentiate it from one. In fact, the first section of the film has a lot of resemblance to a ritual act. The group, led by Leonard, arrives on foot at the cabin and details, with minute devotion, what will have to happen. From the “visions” that announced the end of life on the planet, to the commitment that led them there. Each one comes from a different place in the US and also from practicing different professions. No one could imagine that they would be capable of kidnapping a trio of hostages and ordering them to immolate themselves by divine mandate.
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knock at the door
There’s a knock at M’s door. Night Shyamalan has the delusional connotation of a sinister cult. The director wants to show evil as a physical event and he does so through locations. He shows the cabin, once bright and peaceful, as a dark stratum. A scenario of a rebellion against reason. While the hostages try to explain that they will never commit an act of cruelty or violence, the camera pans back and forth. Focus doors at odd angles, show light pointing into dusty corners. Suddenly, it is no longer a house: it is almost an altar.
Score: 3.5 out of 5.
A director who returns to his best films
Very close to the tone and form of the director’s early films, They Knock at the Door is a well-constructed and carefully narrated thriller. Ideal for those who admired the director during his early years, the film returns to the way in which M. Night Shyamalan managed to create an authorial sense in terror. Most of the sequences are in a single room and between low-voice conversations. The atmosphere produced by the director is directly related to the perception of the tension of a forced tragedy.
Shyamalan was criticized on more than one occasion, for having lost his ability to narrate the terrifying with the subtlety and intelligence that his first great success, The Sixth Sense, demonstrated. But in They knock on the door, he recovers it and turns the plot into an experiment based on mixing rhythms and tones. While the first section is based on fear, with a group of strangers making a possible crime clear, the second does so in the invisible. A plot twist that makes the film better than expected and much more solid than its first twenty minutes might indicate. The filmmaker has the ability to, in the end, make both things come together on the same stage and give his work an unpredictable look.
They Knock at the Door is a good film that despite its problems and, in essence, its excessively open ending, manages to concentrate its power to believe. Both in the aspect of faith as hope, and in the trait of fanaticism. The feeling that a violent event will occur, even if there is no other indication than the word of a stranger, is compelling. This makes the film similar to Señales, in which an alien invasion is narrated through the fear of a family. In the same way, its new premise moves away from the obvious and points to a message about what we can do for a greater cause, which it conveys, even despite its difficulties.
Horror in an act of conviction
But what motivates his characters? Although Shyamalan rarely mentions God and never refers to the divine as causing the catastrophe to come, he emphasizes belief. The group of attackers is convinced, without a doubt, that it is doing the right thing. Each one, sorry for having to carry out a thankless mission. But not enough, to stop or deviate from it. “We know what all of this sounds like,” says Sabrina. “But someone will die and it will be one of you,” she adds.
Kill or be killed is the choice facing the characters. Both the group of kidnappers and their hostages. However, M. Night Shyamalan avoids falling into the commonplace of identifying villains or heroes. Even the idea of victims subjected to a type of threat from which they cannot escape. Time and time again, the plot makes it clear that it is a vow of deep confidence in the unknown. Whether it’s murdering a family member to stop a cataclysm or dying together, out of love. They knock on the door contemplate fear and pain from the same point of view.
Shyamalan uses the proportions and scales of furniture, partitions and walls, to make it clear that horror lives in that place. Also, that they are all united by a bloody event. A trick reminiscent of the atmosphere of the Apple TV + series Servant, also by the director. But this time, his perspective wants to confront the audience with a terrifying fact, which is nothing more than a price to pay for hope.
‘A knock at the door’: the blood that will be spilled in the middle of the forest
How does the plot mix both? Through the urge to protect the parents and the survival instinct of each character involved in the dilemma. Gradually, the script for Knocking makes it clear that what seems like a crazy idea could be true. An ambiguous point that the filmmaker maintains through the stifling confines of the titular cabin.
The hostages are cut off from the world outside, and suddenly the mere suggestion that they are responsible for a global catastrophe seems plausible to them. Leonard’s endless litany, his ability to make it clear that the decision depends on forces outside of himself, takes its toll on Eric and Andrew. In the end, one of them ends up being convinced that death could be a way of showing love. To be more and more certain that the fate of the world rests on his shoulders.
From then on, the tape makes it clear that hope and cruelty can be part of the same thing. An unlikely idea that the story of Knock at the door manages to sustain, at least during its painful first twenty minutes. However, the trade-off that the premise shows is not just about a large-scale cataclysm. It is a tragedy in a family that will lose, whatever it does, the element that holds it together. Even without the blood spilled, trust is broken. “We’re just strangers now,” Eric murmurs, increasingly convinced of what he apparently has to do.
For its final stretch, the kidnapping and the request of the group of “saviors” who try to avoid the fate of humanity, become the least important point. The possibilities are few and time is short. Kill or be killed, because the family will not survive the coming disaster either. “They will be able to decide how to enter the darkness” explains one of the characters.
The pain turned into a border into the dark
M. Night Shyamalan returns to his favorite themes again. The reasons why someone would be capable of absolute goodness or evil. At the same time, the perception of a supernatural event, as a scenario in which more relevant events are unleashed. Most of the story manages to maintain perspective, but for its last sequences, the plot decays until it loses its solidity.
As on so many other occasions, Shyamalan disappoints in his conclusions, loses his pulse and loses his ambitions. But They Knock at the Door is much more than his ambiguous conclusion. It is also the questions he asked himself during the tour and afterwards, the bittersweet feeling that tragedies, big or small, come from the invisible.
Whether it’s called love or prediction, disaster advances through what we confer importance on and what sustains our way of understanding what we consider valuable. An unexpected message in the middle of a feature film in which a murder is a form of liberation.