Movie review

Over the course of his career, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has consistently been interested in our relationship to mortality and the search for meaning we cling to as we confront it. From when he broke onto the scene with 1999’s enduring “The Sixth Sense” to 2021’s underappreciated “Old,” his best films have been the ones that manage to undertake a tightrope walk between being energizing crowd-pleasers and macabre existential musings. When he successfully strikes this delicate balance, his films hold much that is worth discovering in the pockets of darkness. 

Shyamalan’s latest cinematic confrontation with mortality and meaning, “Knock at the Cabin,” is among his best work. Adapted from the novel “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul Tremblay, it is a film that creates plenty of precisely shot tension from moment to moment while also drawing out a greater dread in its overarching trajectory. We first see this through the eyes of a young child named Wen, played by a compelling Kristen Cui in her feature debut, who is out catching grasshoppers while on vacation at a remote cabin with her adoptive parents. As Daddy Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Daddy Eric (Jonathan Groff) are lounging on the back porch, she meets a soft-spoken mountain of a man who wanders out of the woods to tell her that her family is to be faced with a terrible choice. After Wen runs off to warn her dads, Leonard (Dave Bautista) is joined by Redmond (Rupert Grint), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and Ardiane (Abby Quinn), who proceed to break into the cabin with strange weapons then tie up the two patriarchs. They inform the stunned trio they must choose to sacrifice one of their family or the world will end. 

It is best that little is known about what comes next as the film is built around withholding as much as it is revealing. Though it initially follows the basic narrative path from the novel, it also culminates in a radical diversion. Such a moment may alienate those who believe an adaptation like this should remain faithful to its source material, but this would mean overlooking all the rich thematic weight it carries with it. It is an alteration that does soften the most gruesome elements of the story, but it finds the same somber reflectiveness. This is felt in the many extended close-ups and the fleeting glimpses we get of the outside world that are interwoven into a tense tapestry of fear. While all the cast give strong performances, it is Bautista who shines and shows his range in some key monologues. It is through his voice that we hear how committed Leonard and his crew are to seeing this through to the bitter end. 

There is a gallows humor to all of this from a downright goofy appearance by Shyamalan himself that precedes what may be the end for some unwitting beachgoers near Haystack Rock in Oregon to a late gag involving a tiny window. What makes it work is that the story remains deadly serious and the director’s craft never loses sight of that. Be it in the way the camera follows the motion of a deadly weapon or the gradual zooming in on a shirt that will soon pool with blood, Shyamalan continues to have a sharp eye for the small details that draw us completely into his world. Even though some of the steps it takes to get to its conclusion can be a bit shaky — especially in terms of some visual effects — the experience of witnessing these characters grapple with faith, belief and love holds it together.

In terms of its ending, it is not a giveaway to say there is not really a twist. Rather, it is a more patient unraveling. Where some of Shyamalan’s films can get a little lost in their final act, “Knock at the Cabin” offers a conclusion that fittingly becomes more like a thematic Rorschach test. It is all centered on what you want to believe about what the truth of the story really was and if there was any meaning to be gleaned from the pain of it. It feels most in conversation with his 2002 film “Signs,” but with a greater sadness that borders on embracing a more grim cynicism. When it makes use of one particular song that now carries with it a bittersweet memory in the way only music does, the silence that accompanies it speaks volumes about the losses we endure in life and how we can, if at all, carry on. 

“Knock at the Cabin” ★★★ (out of four)

With Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Written by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, from a novel by Paul Tremblay. 100 minutes. Rated R for violence and language. Opens Feb. 2 at multiple theaters.