Knock At The Cabin Is M. Night Shyamalan At His Worst

This article contains spoilers for the film "Knock at the Cabin."

M. Night Shyamalan's new film "Knock at the Cabin," based on the novel "The Cabin at the End of the World" by Paul G. Tremblay, has a supernatural premise that is never fully delved into. And while obfuscating the finer mechanics of the film's fantasy setup certainly adds to its general air of mystery, what Shyamalan and his co-screenwriters Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman have chosen to leave in reveals some dark and deeply morally irresponsible things. By the end of "Knock," one might see a downright bigoted ethos being advocated. The ending is especially galling, given how much on-screen suffering the two lead characters went through. 

Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff play Andrew and Eric, a happily married couple who are vacationing with their young daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) at a remote lakeside cabin in Pennsylvania. Andrew and Eric are happy, but they didn't come by their happiness easily. Flashbacks reveal that their relationship was rejected by their bigoted parents. When preparing to adopt Wen, they were accosted by a bigot in a bar, and Andrew was smashed over the head with a beer bottle for the crime of talking to his husband in public. When they adopt Wen, Andre has to pretend to be a potential uncle rather than the girl's father. 

Despite it all, the two men have survived to be happy. When a doomsday cult breaks into their cabin demanding a sacrifice, it only speaks to how much is at stake for Andrew, Eric, and Wen. They fought to get what they have, and now, a seemingly random, itinerant doomsday cult is threatening that.

Who lives and who dies?

The doomsday cult is made up of the gentle-voiced Leonard (Dave Bautista), the panicked Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), the peacemaker Adriane (Abby Quinn), and the downright combative Redmond (Rupert Grint). They break into the cabin, but then gently explain that they have been guided by "visions" to this place. Their psychic premonitions have dictated that the world will soon end, but also that it can be prevented. If one of the three main characters murders another, it will count as a sacrifice and the world will be saved. If they do not, the cult will murder one of its own members ... thereby unleashing a deadly plague that will kill thousands. If all four of the doomsday cultists die, the world will end. 

Over the course of the film, Eric and Andrew consistently refuse, and the cultists begin getting killed off. They then scan the TV, and lo, a tsunami hits. Then a disease that rapidly wipes out children. And so on. 

This is a suspicious detail: the disasters on TV are all pre-recorded. The tsunami in question actually made landfall some four hours before the opening of the film, leading Andrew to rightfully posit that the doomsday cultists are in fact merely some sort of twisted extreme religious sect that is aiming to harass, convert, or murder queer people for their own bigoted reasons. Their "sacrifice" story was carefully timed to match the news reports on TV. 

What's stated, what's unstated

More suspicious: Redmond is, in fact, the same man who smashed Andrew in the head with a beer bottle years before.

More suspicious still: the four cultists met on a message board online. In a post-4Chan world, the phrase "we met on a message board" is a red flag for extremism and bigotry.

Whatever the premise, the harsh visual of two queer men being tied up and threatened by a quartet of apocalyptic doomsayers may be difficult for some viewers. There is some dialogue inserted into the screenplay, allowing the cultists to announce their lack of homophobia, and that their victims' queerness has nothing to do with why they were targeted by the unnamed Sacrifice Deity. There is, however, a palpable reason to believe that "Knock" is about the dangers of modern extremism. For a moment, it looks like Shyamalan has written a terse, home-invasion drama about the pervasive presence of doomsday-worshiping extremists in 2023 America, and how queer people are, even at this late date, specifically targeted by such groups. Some of the anti-queer legislation that has been currently working its way through the U.S. government is certainly salient to the events of this film. 

That's not what "Knock at the Cabin" is about.

As the film elapses, Eric finds himself increasingly convinced that the doomsayers are right, and that a blood sacrifice of him or of his family is necessary to keep the world intact. If the world does end, Leonard explains, Eric, Andrew, and Wen will survive, left to wander a scorched Earth. Andrew rightly yells what much of the audience is probably feeling: if the world requires the murder of a gay man at the hand of his husband in order to keep turning, then let the world burn. 

The worst ending

At this juncture, there are several potential endings poised. Shyalaman chooses the worst one.

In one scenario, no sacrifice is made, but the world remains. The cultists are proven wrong, and the online death machine claimed four deluded souls. In another scenario, no sacrifice is made and Andrew and Eric flee, only to find the world ends anyway. Having proven their moral rightness over an unjust Higher Power, however, they happily wander the scorched Earth in peace. In a third scenario, a sacrifice is made, but the world ends nevertheless. The events in the cabin, in that case, would be the final panicked moments of waning humanity. 

A final scenario, however, is the one the filmmakers chose. The cultists die, instigating the apocalypse. Planes fall from the sky and lightning strikes increase. Eric pleads with Andrew to kill him and stop all this. Think of Wen and the future she would have with civilization intact. Andrew already argued that the continued survival of the world may not be worth it — a nihilistic theme to be sure, but a theme nonetheless — but Eric feels the world is worth saving. Andrew, in a moment of sadness and resolve, murders his own husband. The sacrifice immediately undoes the world's disasters, and the world persists. 

Andrew looks through the cultists' belongings and finds they were exactly who they said they were. They were, Shyamalan seems to say, honest, ordinary people. 

One can't help leaving the theater deeply hurt by Shyamalan's message. Yes, the world is alive, and thank goodness the bigot was right. And that a gay man is dead. The world can only continue to turn so long as an unacknowledged and persecuted queer couple is forced to kill and die for its benefit.

What was being said

Perhaps Shyamalan was trying to make a point about how persecuted people are too frequently pushed aside and killed by a bigoted world. Indeed, a 2019 Canadian horror film called "Spiral" (not to be confused with the "Saw" sequel with the same title) dealt with something similar. In that film, a gay couple moves into a nice home in a rich neighborhood, only to find microaggressions and subtle hatred from their neighbors. The inability of the gay characters to assimilate into a bigoted neighborhood will eventually play into a plot about religious sacrifice as well. It's explained in dialogue that the "Spiral" cultists target persecuted groups specifically and drive them insane with their prejudice. It's not a great film, but "Spiral" is at least reaching for a message about the insidious power of prejudice. 

"Knock" has no such ambitions. The film's beatific music and peaceful scenery don't belie a dark message. Shyamalan is not saying that the world is so bleak that it eats up queer people. One can only walk away from "Knock at the Cabin" with the sensation that Shyamalan was making a "Left Behind"-style Evangelical film about the righteous hatred of hardcore extremists, and how queer people need to die out to set the world at ease.

And that's really, really horrible.