Start with a best-selling novel (“The Cabin At The End Of The World,” by Paul Tremblay, 2018) that was adapted into a screenplay (Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, 2019) that was placed on The Black List of unproduced screenplays esteemed by producers and executives, then make a movie by the economical M. Night Shyamalan, who now self-finances his $5 million-$20 million pictures. The best will make a fortune; the most idiosyncratically strange of his movies won’t lose money.
Forget the financial implications and also ignore its several fathers, and consider the movie at hand: “Knock At The Cabin,” a sincere, achingly patient lunge toward the Biblical. A peaceful family is challenged: young fathers Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their adopted Chinese daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). Wen, in beautiful wooded daylight and small among green, green grasses outside the cabin, is gathering grasshoppers in a jar. Leonard (Dave Bautista), a kindly if very large and tattooed stranger appears and talks to a reluctant Wen, but charms her with his calm. As he advises her on what to do with her clutch of insects: “You want them to calm down,” Leonard advises. “You don’t want them to panic.” Bautista is very good: soothing but also eminently fearsome.
Three more figures appear: like Leonard, they shared visions, and their meeting on an online bulletin board led to them acquiring medieval weapons and converging at this seemingly random retreat to challenge the family: one of you must murder the other, or the world will end, finito. (None of the schematic, elemental plot is hidden in the trailer or elsewhere.)
The spectacle is largely confined to a few hundred square feet (vast tragedy on a little flatscreen; a few flashbacks, to Pennsylvania street corners, a glimpse inside a tavern with a single neon sign; what passes for a Chinese orphanage) of a rental cabin in the woods.
I liked “Knock at the Cabin”—what an awful title!—while watching it, partly because of Shyamalan’s command of light, framing, lenses: shot on film, this bleak thriller looks good. I liked it, too, because it makes you wonder how someone so, so adept at the formal qualities of a movie can also make something so resolutely humorless. I couldn’t tell at first if “Knock” was going for the rich wackiness of a Shyamalan movie like “The Happening.”
But noooo. We’re under the stern, firm hand of another Shyamalan identity, Cecil Night DeMille. It’s a prophecy. It’s “biblical.” It’s about sacrifice, it’s about family. It’s also about fist-punch bluntness, including the announcement, “The four of us are here to stop the apocalypse.”
Oh, well, come on in. The quartet present their plainly risible case in a methodical way, introducing themselves, their backgrounds, and their own incomprehension as to how they got here. Is this possible? Are you nuts? Did someone hit us on the head?
There’s a little of the Abraham story; a tincture of “Sophie’s Choice”; the trolley problem; the film of “The Mist” and a key element of Alan Rudolph’s comic masterpiece “Choose Me” (all the lies a man tells are purest truth), all visited by these four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
But the worst comparison for “Knock” comes with the timing of its release, arriving only a few days after the elegant “Long Long Time,” the third episode of the series “The Last Of Us,” which portrays the life of a gay couple in a single house in a deserted area across a couple of decades and how they deal with the end of the world they knew outside its confines.
Two bursts of pop culture pass in the night: “Cabin” has a comparable setting. Except in the most grandiloquent gestures, “Cabin” lacks tenderness, which “Long Long Time” brims with, and the story takes only a few hours, injects tsunamis, graduate-seminar philosophical musings, a fast-acting plague and seven hundred or more jets dropping from the sky like rocks.
Those planes crashing are seen in televised images of huge yet tiny vehicles against wooded landscapes, eerily, painfully resembling phone-camera footage from the war against Ukraine. An even icier passage comes under the end credits, with wireframe animation of detonating planes falling, breaking into pieces, falling like in a bad dream that will not end, swirling, curling around the names of special effects technicians.
With metronomic pace and undue patience, lugubrious yet stately Shyamalan moves back and forth as to whether any of this is to be believed: oh, we of little faith? No! Ye of little faith!
We get only a glimpse of the cabin kitchen, but it’s stocked with red herrings. Social media is the villain for a while as one of the fathers has a moment of torrential lucidity, and describes “a uniquely twenty-first-century health crisis… an echo chamber.”
The biggest laugh from the preview audience came from Shyamalan’s cameo, seen selling an air fryer on a shopping channel. Even Doomsday deserves good fried chicken.
“Knock at the Cabin” is now playing.