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The Dangerous Politics of Knock at the Cabin

Let me be the first to acknowledge my first impressions of M. Night Shylaman’s newest feature Knock at the Cabin, are at least partially colored by how big of a fan I am of Paul Tremblay’s best-selling books, Cabin being one of them. His masterful use of ambiguity to build mood is unrivaled. Ambiguity manages to give both the characters and the reader agency. He invites the reader to make decisions and explore all sides of the problem. He wants us to participate. M. Night Shyamalan is not interested in that. None of those qualities exist in the film adaptation of the book, Knock at the Cabin.

That being said, Knock at the Cabin offers fantastic performances that prove to be more complex than the screenplay ever attempts. It is a problematic post-apocalyptic thriller that fits firmly within  Shyamalan’s oeuvre without offering anything new to the subgenre. Knock represents the best of Paul Tremblay while highlighting some of the problems with Shyamalan’s work. The good parts are all Tremblay. The bad parts…all Shyamalan.

The movie’s logline is- while vacationing, a girl and her fathers are taken hostage by armed strangers who demand that the family make a choice to avert the apocalypse. Jonathan Groff plays Daddy Eric while Ben Aldridge plays Daddy Andrew. Kristen Cui eats up the screen as their daughter Wen. Their performances are full of love, warmth, and empathy as their backstory unfolds throughout the film. However, the superstar of the ensemble has to be David Bautista’s Leonard, who plays a hulking Joan of Arc with so much sympathy it is hard not to root for him at times despite the chaos and violence he brings. Bautista is leonine and sweet, and it is nice to see him in a role that shows the range of what he can play.

The movie’s first two acts exist in this limbo between what we see in news reports on television and what the entirely rational family knows to be true. As the stakes are ratcheted up, the ambiguity falls to the wayside, and the film becomes a Christian morality tale with the two gay dads playing the martyrs. The end of the film does not leave room for interpretation. The end of the world was approaching through a myriad of cataclysmic events, and their sacrifice at the end stopped it. It is impossible to view this movie outside of the context of our political landscape, where members of the LGBTQ population are seeing a resurgence in hate crimes and anti-queer legislation. It is only made worse by the aborted conversation we get about the role of news (or fake news) in crafting national narratives. Shyamalan tells us trust whatever we see on television.. They always have our best interests at heart. While Eric attempts to have this conversation, the other characters don’t allow the space for that conversation, and the ending would make it moot anyway.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

One of the cult members, played by Rupert Grint, was involved in a hate crime against Andrew years before, and in that moment, I felt like Shylaman had the opportunity to open space for multiple possible endings that certainly would have made the film messier. Its lack of mess ends up making the film deeply problematic. Paul Tremblay has always understood the world is complex. A Head Full of Ghosts does a wonderful job examining just how complicated the world of entertainment can be especially in the context of mental illness. When Knock was first announced, I felt like the writer and director were a match made in heaven. After the screening, I felt the opposite. While much has been made of Shyamalan‘s twists, they have become a symbol of his work. He ties up all of the loose ends (he was dead the whole time, swing away, the beach was actually used by a pharmaceutical company, pick whichever twist is your favorite).

It was a criticism I had of Old (which I mostly enjoyed). Directors don’t have to spell everything out for the audience. Sometimes when they feel compelled to do so, they miss other possible interpretations. That lack of trust is on full display the last 20 minutes of the film, where we are told EXACTLY what happened and the role the family played in all of it.

The end of Tremblay’s novel returns agency to the two fathers. They make conscious decisions to value their family and their situation at the potential risk of everyone else. More importantly, they reject the idea that “God” would demand such a sacrifice. Embracing love as the solution. Shyamalan is more interested in tying up all of these loose ends, and as a result, we find ourselves in a place where the gay couple must sacrifice their love so that the rest of civilization can return to normal. It is not a good message. Its lack of ambiguity makes all of the solutions firmly entrenched in a rage-filled Christian orthodoxy that removes all of the humanity from those involved. The family at the center of the film becomes a vessel or vehicle for the rest of us, and frankly, that’s a lot to ask of anyone or any community. Knock seems to imply that if gay couples would just sacrifice themselves and their collective happiness for the rest of us, we could all move on. It is a dangerous sentiment, especially right now.

Should you go see Knock at the Cabin? Absolutely! If nothing else, Bautista’s sweet performance will endear him to you even more than it already has. I might also add if the film does well at the box office, then we might get even more adaptations from Tremblay’s work. That alone is a reason to celebrate the release. Be prepared for a movie that feels distinctly American at this moment in our collective history. But, like some of the issues being debated in Washington right now, maybe we shouldn’t ask queer couples to sacrifice their families and happiness for the rest of us.