When director M. Night Shyamalan comes knocking with one of his signature thrillers, you never know what’s going to appear. Maybe it's a kid who sees ghosts or a reluctant, unbreakable superhero, or a houseplant that wants to kill you.
But when there's a “Knock at the Cabin,” definitely answer the door. Based on Paul Tremblay’s provocative 2018 horror novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” the pre-apocalyptic film (★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters now) is top-shelf Shyamalan. Centered on a family having to make the most dreadful of decisions, “Knock” is a well-crafted intimate thriller that plays with your expectations and immerses you in a disconcerting situation.
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It also features a knockout dramatic performance from Dave Bautista, the massive – and massively talented – wrestler-turned-actor, who’s never been better.
Eight-year-old Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui) is vacationing at a remote Pennsylvania cabin with her adoptive dads, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) when a mountain of a man named Leonard (Bautista) approaches her in the woods. A gentle giant, Leonard disarms Wen by helping her catch grasshoppers and says he needs to talk with her parents.
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That’s when she sees the armed strangers with him carrying makeshift weapons. Soon enough, Leonard knocks on the cabin door and he and his group – Redmond (Rupert Grint), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) – take the family hostage, insisting they don’t want to hurt anybody. However, they arrive with a doomsday task: Leonard tells Eric and Andrew that the family must sacrifice one of its own for the sake of humanity – if they don’t, well, cue R.E.M. because it's the end of the world as we know it.
The two dads are naturally skeptical: They figure this is more about them being gay than any actual final-days scenario, especially when Andrew recognizes one of the invaders. But as the story plays out and freaky stuff begins to happen outside their walls, some characters on both sides begin to change their views about the situation.
Narratively, it’s a big swing with heady themes that Shyamalan mostly pulls off, even leaning into hope with a story that could veer super-duper bleak. Like his last film, “Old,” “Cabin” is an adaptation of existing material rather than one of his earlier original stories. That said, it still compares well with his twisty greatest hits, like “Unbreakable” and “Signs.”
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The filmmaker intersperses quite a few flashbacks, most of them unnecessary, and they often futz with the strong claustrophobic tension in the cabin. But he revels in absolutely chilling apocalyptic imagery, including enormous crushing tidal waves and airplanes falling from the sky, like the Book of Revelation taking pages from modern times.
While the small cast is good all around, Bautista is quietly spectacular in the film’s most important role. Like the others in his party, Leonard is a seemingly ordinary dude given an extraordinarily difficult task, and his gentle tortured soul belies his intimidating presence. At the same time, the “Guardians of the Galaxy” star brings a fearsome unpredictability to this mystery group as the tale unfolds: Are they members of some crazy cult, or are they actually on the level?
Saving the world vs. saving your family is an intriguingly rapturous concept to explore, and “Cabin” succeeds the same way Shyamalan’s best films do: by giving you something powerful to watch and something even deeper to think about later.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Knock at the Cabin' review: M. Night Shyamalan film gets apocalyptic