‘Knock at the Cabin’ holds mystery and originality inside its walls

The uneven M. Night Shyamalan scores this time with an involving psychological thriller starring Dave Bautista.

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Dave Bautista and Nikki Amuka-Bird play strangers who bring a disturbing proposal to Andrew (Ben Aldridge, back to camera) and his family in “Knock at the Cabin.”

Universal Pictures

If M. Night Shyamalan never directed anything else after his sensational breakout trio of “The Sixth Sense” (1999), “Unbreakable” (2000) and “Signs” (2002), that would be one enduring legacy, but of course, Shyamalan has continued to make his often twist-capped films over the last couple of decades, delivering heavily criticized duds such as “Lady in the Water” (2006) and “The Last Airbender” (2010) before rebounding nicely with “The Visit” in 2015 and “Split” a year later, not to mention being one of the creative forces behind the Apple TV+ hit series “Servant.”

The rollercoaster ride continues. Shyamalan kind of broke our hearts with the highly anticipated but underwhelming “Unbreakable” sequel “Glass” in 2019 and disappointed again with “Old” in 2021 — but now comes “Knock at the Cabin,” and while my guess is this will be pulverized by some critics and fans for its big swings and logic-defying premise, I found it to be an admittedly loopy but tightly spun, at times wickedly funny and consistently involving psychological thriller that dares to try something different.

In a world filled with sequels and prequels and franchises, there’s still something refreshing about an original story in a self-contained world. (I mean, there COULD be “Another Knock at the Cabin,” but … not necessary.)

‘Knock at the Cabin’

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Universal Pictures presents a film directed by M. Night Shyamalan and written by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, based on the book “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul Tremblay. Rated R (for violence and language). Running time: 100 minutes. Opens Thursday in theaters.

“Knock at the Cabin” is based on Paul Tremblay’s acclaimed novel “The Cabin at the End of the World,” and while Shyamalan and his co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman retain the main characters and adhere to the setup and some of the main plot points, there are some major deviations as well, and we’ll leave it at that.

In the opening prologue, a precocious little girl named Wen (Kristen Cui) is carefully capturing and studying grasshoppers in the Pennsylvania countryside (she has quite the extensive notebook on each of them) when she is approached by a hulking, heavily tattooed man (Dave Bautista). He introduces himself as Leonard and speaks in soft and gentle tones as he talks about wanting to become Wen’s friend and explains a certain situation to her that will require her and her parents to do something special. It’s a deeply disturbing scene and we’re not sure where it’s going — but it’s definitely not going to a good place.

Three more figures materialize from the woods: Leonard’s friends Redmond (Rupert Grint), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird). They’re each wielding some sort of makeshift weapon or tool, and it’s time for Wen to run as fast as she can to the luxury cabin where she and her fathers Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) are vacationing. It takes a moment for Andrew and Ben to realize the magnitude of what the nearly hysterical Wen is telling them — but then comes that knock at the cabin, with Leonard and his associates making it clear (in the politest terms imaginable) they’re coming in, either by invitation or through a more forceful manner.

These opening scenes are expertly rendered in classic horror movie fashion — but this is not a typical “cabin in the woods” splatter film (though it does earn the R rating). Once the quartet of strangers has entered the cabin, the true madness begins. Andrew and Eric are tied up, and Leonard explains that what he’s about to tell them is going to sound crazy, but they hold the fate of the entire world population in their hands. Andrew and Eric must decide which of their three family members will die, and they’ll have to do the killing themselves, it can’t be at the hands of Leonard or his colleagues. If they don’t comply, one of Leonard’s group will be killed, and the first of many great plagues or apocalyptic disasters will descend upon the Earth.

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Eric (Jonathan Groff) and daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) face a predicament.

Universal Pictures

As you might imagine, Andrew and Eric are convinced these people are crazy, that they’re in some sort of cult, that they’re conspiracy theorists who have gone off the deep end. Their captors try to humanize themselves and achieve credibility by telling their back stories. One is a teacher, one is a nurse, one works for the gas company making sure houses are safe, one is a cook. So … a Leader, a Healer, a Protector, a Provider. Might they represent some sort of Biblical connection? Is it even conceivable they’re telling the truth? We should leave the story here and say no more, other than that before all is said and done, not everyone will live to see another day beyond the cabin.

Dave Bautista is cast against type as Leonard, and while his screen-filling physicality can be a distraction, he delivers strong and nuanced work. Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff are lovely and powerfully good together; it was a wise idea for Shyamalan to drop in a few flashbacks here and there so we can see the strength of the union between Andrew and Eric. The supporting players are equally good, as we’re left guessing to the very end as to whether their stories are true.

“Knock at the Cabin” is the kind of film that makes it clear we’re going to have to take some major leaps of faith throughout. If you’re willing to abandon skepticism and a certain kind of logic at the door, the cabin holds some pretty amazing secrets.

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