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This image released by Universal Pictures shows Dave Bautista, from left, Abby Quinn, and Nikki Amuka-Bird in a scene from "Knock at the Cabin." (Universal Pictures via AP)

Former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista stars in Knock at the Cabin.Universal Pictures via AP

Knock at the Cabin

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Written by M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, based on the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

Starring Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff and Rupert Grint

Classification R; 110 minutes

Opens in theatres Feb. 3

Critic’s Pick

There are two talents hard at work in the new thriller Knock at the Cabin: one incorrigible, the other irrepressible, and both feeding off the other’s energy to create something irresistible.

The first, more inveterate of the pair is filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, clearly delighted to continue restocking and then rummaging through his big old bag of nasty tricks. Here, the writer-director – working off someone else’s material for the first time since 2010′s The Last Airbender, arguably the biggest dip of his roller coaster career – tells a story of apocalyptic dread in a way that only he knows how. This is a film of curiously ambitious camerawork, fundamental misunderstandings of how real people might interact, idiosyncratic performances, and a twist that isn’t a twist at all. It is frequently eye-rolling but ultimately impressive filmmaking – Shyamalan remains a master mood-conjurer. The man knows dread, even if he laces it with his typical brand of oh-come-on-now silliness.

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But Shyamalan’s sensibilities are given a boost, in all the right ways, by his decision to join forces here with Dave Bautista. A leading man who seems to be perpetually aw-shucks embarrassed to think that anyone would even consider him in such a light, the former wrestler has gone exactly the opposite way of his Hollywood predecessor, Dwayne Johnson. By turning down his in-the-ring charisma to a simmer and zeroing in on roles that require thinking instead of winking, Bautista has smashed through the WWE ceiling. Whether in Knock at the Cabin, the films of Canadian BFF Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Dune) or his Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, Bautista is the hulk who can hurt your heart as much as your head. He can be the menace that you need, and the one that you deserve.

Which is exactly the kind of unnerving presence that is required to elevate Knock at the Cabin to its intended level of rattled nerves and nail-bitten flesh. The film introduces Bautista’s sorta-villain quickly: his name is Leonard, he looks like he can kill you with the snap of his fingers and he has wandered over to the rural vacation home of a loving family to see through a vicious mission.

Open this photo in gallery:
This image released by Universal Pictures shows Ben Aldridge, from left, Kristen Cui, and Jonathan Groff in a scene from "Knock at the Cabin." (Universal Pictures via AP)

In the film, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan tells a story of apocalyptic dread in a way that only he knows how.Universal Pictures via AP

As Leonard tells his captives – an adorable little girl named Wen (Kristen Cui) and her upper-class progressive parents, whom she calls Daddy Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Daddy Eric (Jonathan Groff) – the apocalypse is nigh. So close, in fact, that the only thing that can stop a series of world-ending plagues is a willing sacrifice on their part. If either Wen, Andrew or Eric would be so kind as to offer their lives – just one soul is needed, thanks – then the rest of humanity will be spared.

To help convince Wen’s family that he is only spreading the good/bad word of God, Leonard has brought along three fellow true believers – a kind nurse (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a peppy line cook (Abby Quinn) and a surly bigot (Rupert Grint) – who are prepared to do almost anything to save the world. Need more? Then how about a series of increasingly terrifying – if curiously staged – television reports that Leonard shows the family every few hours, as the doomsday clock ostensibly ticks closer to midnight.

Like in other Shyamalan films – The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village, The Happening, even last year’s chaotic Old – the filmmaker’s world view starts from a dark, cold place (die together or live alone) before warming up into dangerously cozy temperatures. If you have made it through his other apocalypses, you will see the startling lack of ambiguity in Knock at the Cabin coming a country mile away. (Anyone who has read the film’s source material, novelist Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, should also brace themselves for a third-act swerve.)

But that doesn’t mean that the journey Shyamalan takes audiences on the way to his head-slapper of an ending isn’t a hell of a ride, tense and gripping. Just as there is a journalism-school essay as yet unwritten about how Shyamalan fundamentally misunderstands the mechanics of breaking-news television, there could be – should be – an entire film-studies class taught on how the movie employs tight, static close-ups on the faces of both the captors and their captives to elicit warring sympathies. And for a feature set almost entirely in a single, intimate setting – a regrettable staple of pandemic-era cinema – its director knows how to create a space that feels huge enough to get lost in.

Finally, by tethering his story’s uneasiness to the rock (though not The Rock) that is Bautista, Shyamalan delivers a star vehicle built for two. It isn’t quite right to say that the director and his star deserve each other – more like they need one another. Just as we do. To the end of the world, fellas.

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