Knock at the Cabin rarely minces words, so here goes: M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, in theatres today, is easily his best in nearly 25 years and perhaps his most fiendishly effective work yet. It’s stronger than Split, superior to Signs and infinitely more insightful than that garbage called Glass.

It’s a trim, grim work rooted in the dim outcomes of pushing back at the panics, whether pandemic or parallel, that have pressed against people over the past few years. Of course, the notion of a legendarily artistic narcissist like Shyamalan unleashing a movie about how all of us live now seems either like an unwelcome threat or unintentionally hilarious provocation. Lousy as his résumé is with bad jokes disguised as event thrillers, it’s natural to wait for the punchline. With due respect to the delightful daffiness of his last film, Cabin is less Old, more Old Testament (offset here only by the goofy occupational circumstances of Shyamalan’s perfunctory cameo). But through a blend of morbid sociological curiosity and melancholy lament, Cabin carefully considers the cut of its path toward wrath. By the conclusion of the film, Shyamalan seems as incensed as the next logical person that it has led us only to increasingly scorched earth.

Cabin also answers how fruitful it could be for Shyamalan to work on a thriller with external creative partners … maybe. Adapted from Paul G. Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World, the script is credited to Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman; given that it’s as yet the only feature-length credit for Desmond or Sherman, this could be contractual obligation after a page-one rewrite rather than true creative collaboration. Regardless, for the first time in ages, Shyamalan has matched his generally steady visual discipline with strong thematic focus.

That poise is present from the start, with opening credits that aggressively illustrate his M.O. of creating cataclysmic consequences for everyday people. (While KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” is the innocuous song made ominous later on, the opening refrain of the signature song by fellow funksters Sly and the Family Stone seems to build Cabin’s foundation: “Sometimes I’m right and I can be wrong / My own beliefs are in my song / The butcher, the banker, the drummer and then / Makes no difference what group I’m in.”)

Wen (Kristen Cui) and her adoptive fathers, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge), have escaped Philadelphia for a pause and reset at a remote, woodsy Pennsylvania cabin. Just as Wen adds another grasshopper to her makeshift terrarium (complete with crayon-written taxonomy about names, genders and dispositions), up strolls the hulking Leonard.

As played by Dave Bautista, Leonard is one dichotomous doozie after another. Tattoos snake and spindle beneath a painfully dorky short-sleeved, buttoned-up shirt. Leonard could fold Wen in half, but his body language is so timid that conjuring conversation feels like it requires all his power. Even if Bautista didn’t have scalp striations that resemble the lunar surface, there would be an otherworldly nature to Leonard’s obsequious introduction to Wen. It begins with extreme close-ups from cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (a regular collaborator of Robert Eggers) and moves into a nigh-dermatological excavation of tortured wills and wishes beneath weak flesh.

After small talk of favorite movies and faded scars, Leonard tells Wen he’s there to do a job with three others: Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Redmond (Rupert Grint). It’s a big job. One that will need Wen, Eric and Andrew’s help, too. In fact, it’s the most important job in the history of the world … for the world, Leonard insists, depends on it.

As Wen runs to tell her fathers about Leonard, it almost sounds like a fun game — an invisible friend for Eric and Andrew to indulge with affection, not condescension. But Leonard soon delivers a very real, steady and terrifying seven-count knock at the door to demand entry.

When denied, the quartet enters by force — tying up Eric and Andrew but also sweeping up broken glass and tending to a concussion Eric suffers in the struggle. It also brings them no joy to relay the rueful obligation that has brought them to this doorstep: Eric, Andrew or Wen must choose to sacrifice their life. Another member of the family must kill that person. And if this doesn’t happen, all lives on Earth will end but theirs, resigned to roam a remaining wasteland.

So, who are Leonard the teacher, Sabrina the nurse, Adriane the line cook and Redmond the malcontented ex-con? They are but strangers connected by shared visions of the apocalypse and compelled by their charge to stop it. They say the sharp implements they wield are not weapons but tools. Neither will they take harmful action against Eric, Andrew or Wen other than to compel them to stay and choose to make the sacrifice … or not. But with every opportunity to choose squandered, Leonard says, another plague will be unleashed until the end of all things.

Andrew, who’s a human rights attorney, tries to rationally game this out and frame the foursome’s words as a unique 21st-century mental health crisis they share. Eric, powering through his concussion, attempts more even-keeled conversation and to create calm for Wen. So far, it’s a dash of Us, a dollop of The Strangers and about 10 tablespoons of Take Shelter. But the film eventually peppers in potent flashbacks, which inform Andrew’s assertion that the siege is some attempt at cult conversion or simply just a targeted hate crime. 

As this corner of Cabin widens into talk of message boards and past encounters, it’s practical to brace yourself for the worst. However, Shyamalan and editor Noemi Katharina Preiswerk keep things expedient with a story that barely cracks 90 minutes and continually sows havoc and confusion through both relentless, claustrophobic tension and chaotic framing (often through purposefully antiquated lenses for ultimate throwback undercurrents). And although Cabin is judicious in its bloodletting, an atypical R-rating for Shyamalan helps avoid jarring moments of aesthetic compromise.

The powder-keg chemistry of the gathered ensemble is also crucial here. Even though Bautista looks more apt to punch a pale horse than ride one, the actor expertly leads this ensemble with his most complex, dazzling performance to date. Leonard is a man of constant sorrow and “sorrys,” with an acuity to his angst and anxiety. He would much rather lead his elementary school’s extracurricular sports team to another mediocre season, and whether it’s his affection for that creased team picture or his mournful suggestion that news events he points to as proof of the plan are not fireworks but just final flickering sparks, Bautista is genuinely heartbreaking.

Leonard is also a perfectly calibrated proxy through which Shyamalan explores paranoia in a post-truth era — sweatily paddling as we do against increasingly strong currents of confusing incidents for patterns. This has been a springboard for everything from popular fiction of the Dan Brown ilk to the most perilous political rhetoric ever spouted in the American experiment. Detractors could make a reasonable case that Shyamalan and company’s eventual narrative choices somehow embolden the most dangerous dynamics of what he’s discussing. But Cabin also emphasizes the responsibility of saying only what one knows to be true, firmly planting this tale of infectious ideas and feverish faith at a place of parable. (This also makes it easier to forgive the reduction of the film’s most overt biblical metaphor to D&D-style character traits.) 

The film also shows little interest in demonizing anyone on either side of the story’s clearly drawn lines. One crucial shot of a bag’s contents asks us to understand that behind every virulent, potentially violent idea, there are still people even if they’re hopelessly lost in the blinding light of their beliefs. To pick apart the realism in Andrew’s attempt to gain an upper hand against the captors also disregards the balance given to how his own personality has changed in response to past duress. When pushed from our patterns, no matter what they might be, we can often become people we hardly recognize … and perhaps not always for the greater good.

Are these considerations, and their conclusions, untidy? Somewhat, but the mess aligns with a lack of easy reckoning for real-life events. Could Shyamalan retreat to his usual ridiculousness in whatever he’s revving up for 2024? Possibly. Again: No need to confuse the incident of one very good movie for a pattern of fully rejuvenated mojo. But it’s heartening to see Shyamalan back to considering the upset of characters’ carefully manicured ecosystems and not his own carelessly exaggerated ego. Even if it turns out to be only a light rapping, Knock at the Cabin represents the best of what excites Shyamalan, and his viewers, about the potential and power of his mysteries.