Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan seems to envision the world as something of a high-concept riddle that can only be solved through a process of trial and error that often leaves many dead (or, at the very least, terrorized) in its wake. This film may be the purest incarnation of his sensibility, with three protagonists—a married couple, Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff), and their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), vacationing in a rural Pennsylvania cabin—asked to sacrifice one of themselves to prevent a pending apocalypse. Helping to facilitate that decision are four strangers who mysteriously descend upon the family to try to convince them that the rapture truly is imminent; they violently murder one another and release plagues upon the world each time the family—at first unbelieving, gripped by their own trauma—refuses to make a choice.
Based on Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World, the film begins with a relatively simple premise that Shyamalan wrings dry for cinematic potential. The filmmaking is superb; penetrating close-ups punctuate the film like commas, brief pauses wherein the character’s face envelops the whole screen, becoming the proverbial pages upon which the story unfolds. Shyamalan dazzles here with his gift for taking the kinds of ideas that once comprised the plots of pulp magazine stories, anthology television, and B movies and turning them into high art. And so does Dave Bautista, who’s unusually effective as the gentle-giant ringleader of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, his skills easily aligning with Shyamalan’s distinctively affected dialogue. With Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint. R, 100 min.