Warning: Spoilers below
It’s rare to leave a contemporary film wishing it had been more didactic, but such was my experience with M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin, a movie that flings a bunch of loaded suggestions at us and coyly invites us to quilt them into our own moral fabrics. This not a subtle movie—it’s 100 minutes of prolonged apocalyptic misery that hits us over the head in a final-act explication of exactly what’s happening—but it is vague in its implications. I left feeling less like my intelligence was being respected and more like my point of view had been gestured at, alongside a host of others on the political spectrum of the United States. This Cabin leaves its doors open, and it seems reasonable to assume that what’s guiding it is not benevolence or optimism for unity in our divided times, but a kind of both-sides-ism that can make an inherently political movie palatable enough to a mass audience.
Based on Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World, Knock at the Cabin concerns the country-home invasion of gay couple Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff). When a bespectacled Leonard (Dave Bautista) trots up to their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), she doesn’t say, “Oh, you must be my daddies’ good friend, what with your big muscles, shaved head, deep voice, and general vibe of cartoonish butchness.” She asks why he’s there, and he tells her that he’s there to be her friend. It’s a legitimately creepy scene, this encounter between oversharing child and soft-spoken, over-friendly adult. Then, Leonard and his pack of three other somber but determined compatriots invade the house and tie up Wen’s dads. Though the invasion is jarringly violent, this 30-minute section of the movie is likely to feel like treading water to anyone who has seen the trailer, as Leonard doesn’t get around to explaining what’s going on until about a half hour in: The apocalypse is upon them and the survival of the human race depends on the sacrifice of one member of this family. Leonard reveals that he and the other three—Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint)—all experienced visions that make them certain of the impending doom and the interfamily murder that must occur to stave it off.
Faster than you can say “QAnon,” Andrew calls this for what it very well seems to be: a homophobic mass delusion. The foursome refute this, albeit dubiously. “We don’t have one homophobic bone in our bodies,” claims Sabrina, a nurse who straddles the line between enacting enough force to ensure Andrew and Eric submit and then tending to the wounds that she creates. Leonard shows them scenes of devastation on television, including tsunamis, plane crashes, and the outbreak of the X9 virus, which is particularly fatal to kids under 10. He rattles off Revelation-like prophecy: “The skies will fall and crash to the earth like pieces of glass. And God’s finger will scorch the Earth. And everlasting darkness will descend over humanity.” It all seems like an extremely elaborate plot from people who want to impose their fairy tales on others—and a parable for the dangers of Christian nationalism, which is a sadly relevant thing to examine given how socially acceptable the words “Christian nationalism” have become in the mouths of subscribing politicians and other citizens.
Of course, there’s also the prospect of environmental collapse, and that this group of four have timed their torture of an unsuspecting family to coincide with the inevitable. But no, the four invaders are right, and they’re not just right, they’re the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as Eric needlessly spells out during the movie’s final act, for those in the audience who can’t count up to four, I suppose. In line with Shyamalan’s The Happening, the twist in Knock at the Cabin is that there is no twist—everything the invaders say is correct. Knock at the Cabin, then, seems to wonder openly, “What if QAnon were right?” What if the seeming mass delusion weren’t a delusion at all, but a fair warning? What if that coming storm were really a storm? What if the continuation of humanity really did depend on the destruction of this family, and oh look, it just happens to be a family in which the parents are gay men?
Knock is the rare example of a genre movie featuring gay characters as its principal leads, and it punishes them with an agonizing choice that will rip their family apart, permanently altering their collective identity. Its prophetic foursome claim that this is a coincidence, with Leonard saying later that he feels this family has been targeted (by God, I suppose) because of the strength of the love present. What this setup offers is both novel representation of and uncommon punishment for its queer characters. That is hardly a coincidence, and it’s so morally slimy that it made me wish the villains (and by extension, movie) were just straightforwardly homophobic—unabashed bigotry as an antidote to the hand-wringing pretension of the movement to suppress LGBTQ+ people in order to “save” children.
Though the sexual orientation of its protagonists is portrayed in the movie’s trailer as matter-of-fact, their gayness is anything but. If you’re the kind of person that sees a gay couple and thinks, “Which one is the woman?” well, here’s a binary-fixating movie for you. Eric is quieter and more sensitive, while Andrew regularly exhibits brute force (and though his yappiness reads more like bossy bottom to me, I don’t think Knock is invested in such nuance). We get flashbacks to Andrew and Eric’s relationship being rejected by Andrew’s family, and a bashing that Andrew suffered after telling off a guy who asked him and Eric to quiet down while expressing their love for each other in a bar. That guy, it turns out, is Redmond, further convoluting the message. If only Redmond had succeeded in incapacitating or killing Andrew when he broke that bottle over his head, well, their family wouldn’t be in the mess they are now, would they?
Another complication (or something): The attack at the bar led Andrew to buy a gun, which, despite his apparent left-leaning ideology, would allow hetero 2nd Amendment enthusiasts to relate to him. But later, armed with the knowledge that if his family doesn’t sacrifice someone they will be the last three people left on earth, Andrew wonders why he should bother to save the proverbial them, as “they hate us, they hate that we exist.” His reasoning is rooted in his experiences with homophobia, but the film’s resolution suggests he’s too selfish, too radical. “Andrew’s trauma?” Knock is saying. “Too bad, so sad.”
The ideological jumble occurs while the movie’s misery slowly unfurls: As Andrew and Eric bide their time, each of the horsemen is ritually sacrificed (I think this is to convey their seriousness to the non-believers), making for an unpleasant and ultimately unsatisfying viewing experience. In the end, Knock is a movie in which God is real and only pacifiable when the queer domestic unit at the center of the story is disbanded. It’s giving “hate the sin, love the sinner” vibes, but I suspect it also hates the sinner.