M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, “Knock at the Cabin,” is a slow burn of a thriller. It takes its time, often breaking the action to shade in the backstories of its protagonists, a married couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui). These flashbacks occur without warning, are brief, and educate us about each character so that we understand their actions in the present. It’s an effective use of a familiar gimmick.
“Knock at the Cabin” unfolds like a good beach novel, one you can’t put down. The screenplay by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman is based on Paul Tremblay’s 2018 book “The Cabin at the End of the World.” This is a story about the apocalypse. Like Bill Paxton’s “Frailty” and Michael Tolkin’s “The Rapture,” it forces the viewer to question if the people peddling a biblical narrative are merely insane zealots or true messengers informed by God.
In the hands of a good filmmaker, this uncertainty can be quite creepy whether you’re a believer or not. Shyamalan has had more ups and downs in his career than most directors who can still get a job, but even at his worst he’s always been very good with his visuals. He wisely opens his film with a literal babe in the woods — Wen is by herself collecting grasshoppers. Framed against the vastness of the forest, Wen’s solitary presence evokes a Grimm fairy tale, or perhaps Eden.
Into this unspoiled paradise comes the Big Bad Wolf or, if we’re still being biblical, the snake. Leonard (Dave Bautista) appears out of nowhere. There’s no stinger or musical cue; he’s just there. As he talks with Wen, Shyamalan and his cinematographers Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer tighten the frame, filming the interaction between the two as a series of uncomfortable close-ups of their faces. Bautista, the enormous wrestler-turned-actor, would tower over Cui in a wide shot. The framing reduces them to the same size.
Leonard speaks very calmly to Wen, a vocal tic Bautista carries throughout most of the film. His performance becomes even more unnerving once we discover what he’s been sent to do. Eventually, Wen realizes this guy is not playing with a full deck, and she runs back to the vacation cabin shared by her dads.
Soon, their safe haven is visited by Leonard and his cohorts, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Ardiane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint, Ron Weasley from the “Harry Potter” movies). The titular event happens, and when Eric and Andrew look out the window, they notice that their visitors are holding medieval weapons: axes, pitchforks, and something that looks designed to smash heads. Despite Leonard’s calm voice advising that he has no intention of harm, it’s clear these visitors do not come in peace.
Or do they? “Knock at the Cabin” often pits the actions of these home invaders at odds with our predictions. When Eric and Andrew defend themselves from the break-in and Andrew is injured, Sabrina, who says she’s a nurse, immediately rushes to give him aid. They also introduce themselves, telling their life stories directly to the camera as if they were on a dating site. Only Redmond, who mocks the intros by saying he likes long walks on the beach and sunsets, has any hint of menace.
As the film’s trailer tells us, Leonard and his crew are trying to prevent the apocalypse. According to the shared visions of the four intruders, the only people who can save the world are this family. Eric and Andrew are given an impossible choice, and limited time to make it.
Here’s where those flashbacks come into play. We see the courtship of Eric and Andrew, learn about their personalities, and watch as they engage in a bit of chicanery to ensure two gay men can adopt a baby girl. (Andrew poses as the brother of Eric’s “wife.”) We also learn that a guy who looks suspiciously like Redmond was jailed after he gay-bashed Andrew, brutally injuring him and sending him into therapy for years to control his resulting anger.
Is Leonard telling the truth about the apocalypse, or is this a revenge plot engineered by Redmond? “Knock at the Cabin” drops breadcrumbs supporting both interpretations. Whether it settles on the truth in a satisfactory manner is open for interpretation. I will say those looking for a Shyamalan-style twist will be greatly disappointed.
What is here is a well-executed genre piece, with good performances and some very gnarly violence that mostly occurs off-camera but is punctuated with nauseating sound effects. As he had in “Spoiler Alert,” Aldridge has the harder role to play in this gay couple due to his internalization of the violence committed against him and the confusion resulting from his head injury. He and the more optimistic Groff complement each other nicely. Bautista, with his carefully modulated voice acting and body language, holds this movie together. It’s excellent work.
“Knock at the Cabin” is sure to be divisive, especially with its notion that a family far too many people see as “abnormal” might be considered the saviors of humanity. Aldridge has a great speech about how homophobic the world can be, so why would he consider saving it? It’s subversive, but of course it could all be for naught if Leonard and his crew aren’t on the level. See for yourself if they are.
KNOCK AT THE CABIN
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Written by Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, and Michael Sherman, based on the book “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul Tremblay. Starring Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint. 100 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, Regal Fenway & RPX, and suburbs. R (grisly violence, numerous deaths).
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.