M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Knock at the Cabin’ Rings in the Apocalypse With a Notable Dave Bautista

For most of its running time, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Knock at the Cabin” sustains an impressive amount of tension centered on a fear of the apocalypse. Like any aware artist, Shyamalan is tapping into our collective mood. The shadow of the pandemic lingers, there is war in Eastern Europe with the superpowers rattling their nukes, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has now updated its Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds away from midnight. When it works, Shyamalan’s latest thriller potently captures how such an environment can make someone short circuit. Whether in his heyday or the later, divisive films, this director has always excelled in getting great performances from his cast. The ensemble he puts together here comes together to capture something about the intense power of belief, before he aims again for one of his signature twist endings, which fizzles out after nearly delivering.

In a first for Shyamalan, this is an adaptation. The source material is Paul Tremblay’s novel “The Cabin at the End of the World.” The movie opens in much the same way as the book. Seven-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) is collecting grasshoppers in the woods when she is approached by a massive, yet kind stranger named Leonard (Dave Bautista), who warns Wen that tough decisions lie ahead. This was supposed to be a pleasant vacation for Wen and her two dads, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), who have rented a cabin. Leonard and three other companions, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Ardiane (Abby Quinn) and Redmond (Rupert Grint) arrive at the door and barge in, armed with rusty weapons. They tie up Leonard and Eric and pose an unnerving mission. The couple has been chosen by cosmic necessity. They must choose one family member to sacrifice or the world will face apocalyptic doom in the form of storms, cataclysms and plagues.

“Knock at the Cabin” is Shyamalan returning to a claustrophobic form of thriller he helped define in the early ‘00s. We find shades here of his work in “Signs,” about a preacher’s family feeling under siege in their farm by aliens. But now the director is attempting to go into even darker territory, brushing with bloody horror mixed with themes of near-religious fanaticism. There’s actually much in common here with thrillers like Bill Paxton’s “Frailty,” where a father becomes convinced God has chosen him to kill demons disguised as people. Dave Bautista brings a striking sincerity to his performance, which has surprisingly vulnerability. Known mostly as the hulking simpleton of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” here the wrestler proves he’s the real deal. He’s a convinced believer, akin to a religious fundamentalist, who might be genuinely kind but is certain of his holy mission. The other members slightly flinch or hesitate, but he won’t, even when it comes to killing someone in order to make an example. Shyamalan’s eye for casting remains sharp, creating characters we can believe could exist.

The first two acts generate tension through the psychological war that ensues. How can this invading group possibly convince Eric and Andrew their claims are true? Andrew is a lawyer with a short temper who will resist all the way while Eric is the more contemplative partner. It must be said their portrayal is a refreshing use of gay characters that break stereotypes in a thriller genre. The narrative also cuts back to memories of the couple adopting Wen and facing a hate crime that has marked Andrew, propelling him to react to their situation with even more ferocity. Shyamalan then employs one of his old tricks, which is to use a nearby television to hint at terrors outside. In “Signs,” alien ships fuzzily appear over cities, here Leonard puts on news about tsunamis and spreading diseases, which doesn’t necessarily mean he’s right, but how did he know they would appear?  The audience feels tied up next to the couple and Wen, questioning if Leonard and his gang are indeed insane or on to something.

What is certain to generate much bemoaning, like much of Shyamalan’s work, is the ending. Ever since 1999’s “The Sixth Sense,” which remains his most influential film, Shyamalan hasn’t been able to detach from the idea that we’re all expecting a twist finale from his movies. The gimmick has turned him into a pop culture punching bag, along with the cornball, egotistical movies of the late ‘00s. It’s indeed the ending of “Knock at the Cabin” that flounders, leaving us with empty hands and wondering just what Shyamalan is trying to say. Very strong dramas about apocalyptic visions, such as Jeff Nichols’s brilliant “Take Shelter,” end with some kind of revelation that brings the story back full circle to a clear statement. After ratcheting up the tension with so many close calls, deaths and hints, the ending of this movie summarizes the dazed feeling of, “is that all there is to it?”

And yet, for most of its first half, “A Knock at the Cabin” is effectively unnerving filmmaking. Shyamalan manages to capture a bit of the determined fanaticism of the kind of individuals obsessed with the “Left Behind” movies and books, or radical preachers like J.D. Farag in Hawaii, who every week scours the headlines to prove his paranoid conspiracy theories signal the rapture is near. His images are composed at times like end of days fever dreams. Outside of religion, we all know climate change is quickly pushing us toward catastrophe. The question is how do we respond to impending doom? With a strong ending “Knock at the Cabin” could have been a great exploration of the mood of our times. But there are still good things in this movie, beginning with the performances, which all strike great notes, including young Kristen Cui as a hyper intelligent child suddenly thrown into a horrifying experience. Shyamalan may not be fully back to his old form, but he’s inching closer.

Knock at the Cabin” releases Feb. 3 in theaters nationwide.