Why bury your gays when you can make them bury each other? You may find yourself contemplating that question after seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, the tense and morally muddy Knock at the Cabin. Based on Paul G. Tremblay’s 2018 bestseller The Cabin at the End of the World, Knock at the Cabin follows married couple Eric (Jonathan Groff; Looking, Mindhunter) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge; The Long Call, Spoiler Alert) and their adopted daughter Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui) as their remote cabin getaway is interrupted by four armed intruders, led by Leonard (Dave Bautista; Guardians of the Galaxy, Glass Onion), who give them a terrible choice: choose a member of your family and kill them, or the world will end.
Things proceed quite methodically from there, with a six-scene cycle more or less repeating itself four times:
- The intruders argue with the captives;
- The intruders argue with each other;
- The captives argue with each other;
- Horrifying violence occurs (though almost entirely off-screen, a weirdly neutered choice for an R-rated thriller in 2023 that lends credence to theories that Universal exercised a heavy hand in making the film more appealing to conservative audiences);
- An improbably immediate news report about the impact of this violence on the real world airs (and uses up the film’s entire effects budget);
- We’re treated to a flashback of homophobia ranging from mild to terrible that Eric and Andrew have experienced (or, more accurately, Eric has witnessed Andrew experiencing).
The intruders range from commanding (Leonard) to soothing (Nikki Amuka-Bird as ER nurse Sabrina) to menacing (a brief but very effective Rupert Grint as Redmond, whose sinister connection to the couple undercuts whatever religious fervor the story is trying to convey) to…well, downright confusing (Abby Quinn as Adriane, a wild-eyed, unnervingly nervous cook), and as they threaten to bring Biblical plagues down on humanity they’re given much more backstory than the gay ciphers that are Eric and Andrew. Outside of the aforementioned flashbacks we spend zero time with the family in a less fraught context, leaving them more pawns on Shyamalan’s board than fully fleshed-out characters. Their sexuality initially seems entirely incidental to the story, but it ultimately feels at best like an excuse to show several varieties of gay-bashing and at worst like a homing beacon for moralistic zealots.
That the film is so thoroughly stuck in a thematic quagmire of its own making is a great disservice to its very game cast. Aldridge and Bautista steal the show, with the former a smoldering tempest of pent-up rage from a lifetime of being attacked and ostracized for who he is and the latter a sensitive mountain, simultaneously intimidating and disarming. Cui is also deserving of a shoutout, avoiding the most annoying tropes of child characters who wake up one day to find themselves stuck representing humanity’s innocence in a horror film, with her most effective work opposite Bautista in the film’s discomfiting opening scene. Technically, there is a lot to enjoy here, from the tight and claustrophobic cinematography to the contained but frightening effects in those undercooked news reports to the crowded and lived-in production design.
Known for weak scripts and shocking twists, here Shyamalan has abandoned the latter for a muddled morality play. While the cast and some technical aspects make an impact, taken as a whole Knock at the Cabin is more mean-spirited slog than insightful thriller.
I have not read the novel the film is based off of, but the film apparently changes the ending quite dramatically. The film concludes with Andrew shooting Eric at the latter’s behest, collecting Wen, and driving away to find that the apocalypse has been diverted and its four horsemen sated (for now, at least); in the book, Wen is accidentally killed before the final act, and Eric and Andrew decide to let the cruel world end, with them as its witness. While it seems quite apparent this is not the intent, it’s not unreasonable to think that the film could suggest to a certain audience that the only way to save the world is to destroy same-sex families.
You can watch Knock at the Cabin exclusively in theaters now, and it will eventually be streaming on Peacock. You can find more of my reviews (and musings on the Oscars) here on The Avocado, and on Letterboxd.