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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Knock at the Cabin"

Few contemporary filmmakers know how to use a camera like M. Night Shyamalan. At a time when the look of so much mainstream cinema is flat and functional, Shyamalan uses visual flair and inventive framing to further the themes of his stories. After all, the impact of his movies is almost always tied up in the tension of what he chooses to show and what he chooses to withhold.

Knock at the Cabin, Shyamalan’s 15th feature, is one of his better films, and certainly the best he’s made since his heyday in the early 2000s. Maybe that’s not saying much, but this plays into all of Shyamalan’s strengths, a tightly controlled, ruthlessly plotted thriller that’s also constantly keeping us on our toes with its gripping, elastic visual style.

It’s based on a page-turner by Paul Tremblay and begins with a couple named Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) who, along with their 7- or 8-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), are planning to spend a relaxing weekend at a beautiful cabin they’ve rented deep in the woods. Almost immediately, they’re visited by a quartet of strangers played by Dave Bautista, Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Abby Quinn. They talk softly but carry big weapons, strange, medieval-looking instruments they use to break down the door.

These are, as the film will somewhat clumsily explain later on, the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Leonard, the Bautista character, seems to be the ringleader, and he delivers an ultimatum: Either Eric and Andrew sacrifice a member of their own family, or the world will end. And until they can make a decision about who will die, the visitors themselves will offer themselves up as victims every few hours.

What pulls us in is the inescapable logic of the situation: These people have established clear parameters and have promised violence, and when those parameters aren’t met, violence ensues. There’s also the magnetic performance from Bautista, who is hulking but weirdly tender, the weight of the human race pushing down on his broad shoulders.

But back to the style. Shyamalan’s cinematographers Lowell A. Meyer and Jarin Blaschke shoot Knock at the Cabin with terrific virtuosity, and they know how to use the camera as a means of building tension: Pay attention to how they use extreme close-ups to intensify claustrophobia, dramatic rack focuses to illustrate shifting emotional allegiances, split diopters that direct our attention from the background to the foreground and back again. The outside world, we are told, may be coming to an end, and yet the film doesn’t let us see what’s going on out there.

Knock at the Cabin is structured like a moral parable, and yet I don’t know if Shyamalan cares all that much about what those morals are. Is this a movie about the contradictions of choice? About the dangers of blind faith? Are the things that happen a result of cosmic forces, or is it all a terrible coincidence? Whether or not it means anything is up for debate. And sure, if you think about the logic of the situation for more than a few moments, the plot nosedives like a plane falling out of the sky. But I can’t deny that it works as a ticking-clock thriller, and that Shyamalan is back in a groove.

Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.