In Knock at the Cabin, the old M. Night Shyamalan haunts the new one

It’s a fresh crisis of faith from a director who used to love themLike Taylor Swift, Shakespeare had a lot to say about reputation. In Othello, when the noble Cassio mourns the tarnishing of his reputation, which he identifies as “the immortal part of myself,” the duplicitous Iago talks him out of being so precious, and says a good reputation is “an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving.” There’s a kernel of truth in both Cassio’s lament and Iago’s dig: Reputations are hard-won and easily lost, and they involve a frustrating number of other people, none of whom need to be well informed as they help burnish it or burn it down. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has been dogged by his reputation since his breakout hit The Sixth Sense. His rep casts a shadow over every movie he’s made since. But his latest, Knock at the Cabin, might be the first one in decades that his reputation actually improves.That doesn’t seem to be the case at first. In keeping with recent Shyamalan movies like OldKnock at the Cabin is a straightforward affair, a story that doesn’t deviate from what the trailers show. Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) are a happy couple on a woodsy getaway in a remote cabin with their young daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui). Their pleasant vacation is cut short when a man named Leonard (Dave Bautista) arrives with three associates in tow. With complete conviction, he says the world is ending, and the only way to stop it is for one of the family members to kill another.

Adapting Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World, Shyamalan and his credited co-writers craft the source material into a taut psychological thriller that slowly pivots from home-invasion paranoia to existential horror. Leonard and his companions claim that they’re normal people who do not want to hurt the family at the heart of the film, and their actions seem to bear that out. They’re apologetic, remorseful, even caring. They truly believe that the apocalypse is imminent, and that the only way to avert it is for Andrew, Eric, and Wen to designate one member of their family as a sacrifice. The invaders are willing to trap the family in their cabin for as long as it takes them to make that sacrifice.With the action largely confined to one location, and the bulk of the story dedicated to a small cast wrestling with a tense, unbelievable situation, Knock at the Cabin feels like a play. Its success rests squarely on what the performers bring to the material. No one bears that weight more than Bautista, who has to sell the conviction of Leonard’s beliefs both to his victims and to the audience while giving credence to all the things Leonard becomes in their collective imaginations: a menace, a lunatic, a bigot, a sadistic murderer, or, most frightening of all, a sincere man receiving visions from a supernatural source.His powerful conviction is the real horror of Knock at the Cabin. Leonard believes in absolutes in a world that offers none, and his soft speech and apparent sorrow over his actions makes him frightening in a way that makes Bautista’s hulking, threatening physicality entirely secondary. The scary thing about Leonard isn’t that he might hurt someone. It’s that he might be right.

Shyamalan is playing in familiar territory here, revisiting the crisis-of-faith theme that fueled his initial wave of success with films like The Sixth Sense and Signs. In other words, it’s diving headfirst into ideas his more recent work has carefully avoided. Shyamalan’s midcareer nadir was characterized by his storytelling tics devolving into something like self-parody in films like The Village and Lady in the Water, a grim preface to the twin big-budget failures of The Last Airbender and After Earth. In the time since, he’s rebuilt his reputation on the back of pulpy psychological thrillers like The VisitSplit, and Old.Combining his favorite ideas and his recent trends makes Knock at the Cabin uneven once it shifts from its horror intro into heavier subject matter. Shyamalan has always been a restrained director with a knack for making the space in a scene disappear, so that even the wide-open spaces of a field in The Happening or a beach in Old all feel slightly claustrophobic. In Knock at the Cabin, the abundant woods around the titular cabin slowly suffocate the protagonists, isolating them and keeping them from knowing whether the apocalypse Leonard says is in progress is even real. The trees that seem soothing in the early going of the film soon shiver with anxiety, and Shyamalan’s fondness for uncomfortable close-ups highlights the ways faith and doubt can transform a person from one moment to the next.It’s all extremely effective, mesmerizing stuff, undercut by Shyamalan’s habits as a blunt, obvious writer. Characters say things plainly that would be better left unsaid. Answers are given where questions would sit better. And some of the details are just plain nonsensical. In his rewriting of a script from Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, the Shyamalan of yore — the guy known for big twist endings and overly serious, turgid takes on pulp thrillers — collides with the modern Shyamalan and his odd, off-key restraint. The result is fascinating for those willing to consider it, but also a frustrating reminder of the baggage its director brings to all of his work.

Few genre filmmakers were as openly spiritual as Shyamalan in his heyday, and the tension between his messy earnestness as a writer and his more calibrated, stylish approach to visual storytelling is part of what makes him such a polarizing artist. His contemporary films are easier to love because they lean hard on the latter, but the most endearing thing about him might be the fact that he can’t stop thinking about how scary it is to believe in something, how horrible and beautiful a thing like faith can be even to those who embrace it. M. Night Shyamalan, as presented through his body of work, feels compelled to believe in some higher power, but is unable to quiet his rational mind. Knock at the Cabin, in some ways, is about this tension, and about coming to peace with the answer he reaches.As uneven as Knock at the Cabin is, it’s the work of a more complete Shyamalan than even the director who made Old two years ago. It’s a film from a creator who’s interested in probing the ideas of his earlier work with the style and workmanlike rigor of his comeback era. In turning his gaze toward the apocalypse, a messy, complicated filmmaker finally turns to the most neglected aspect of his reputation: that of a believer. By the time the credits roll, there’s an argument to be made that M. Night Shyamalan seems to know where he stands, and it doesn’t really matter to him what anyone makes of it.

Knock at the Cabin opens in theaters on Feb. 3