8/10 Knock at the Cabin is a feature-length exploration of the “Bury Your Gays” trope. It’s not totally insightful or necessary, but it speaks directly to the viewers’ subconscious and it’s quite well-acted and shot.
During a family vacation at a remote cabin, Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) and their 7-year-old adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), are assaulted and tied down by four strangers. The leader, schoolteacher Leonard Brocht (Dave Bautista), tells the family they must select one of their own to sacrifice, performing the murder themselves, or the apocalypse will happen. Brocht and his cohorts work to keep the couple bound and convince them they aren’t lying, but the couple thinks it’s some kind of twisted homophobic torture, especially since one of their attackers, Redmond (Rupert Grint), already assaulted Andrew in a Boston bar while they were on a date some years ago.
Over the past 30 years as queer people have become more accepted onscreen, first as closeted villains in cartoons and tragic AIDS victims in Oscarbate, there’s always seemed to be a reason to kill the queer or queer-coded character off. When they aren’t villains or victims, it can often be a sacrifice in order for the movie’s breeding pair to go on, which is rooted in the idea that breeding is a societal good and heterosexual couples are more valuable because they can spawn. Knock at the Cabin makes all these tropes a very literal part of its plot – in the confines of this story, gay marriage is actually the end of the world. As always, the reasons for this are unclear.
Knock at the Cabin frequently cuts back to moments in their relationship, meeting the parents, Redmond’s attack and their adoption of Wen, for which they are shown falsifying documents to indicate one of them is in an opposite-sex marriage. In a bottle movie like this where the characters are trapped in one setting, it would normally feel like a lack of focus undermining the tension, but here it feels expansive and substantive, adding depth and almost blooming into more of a tragic love story than a home invasion movie.
In the film, the queer family unit must be destroyed, or the world will end – or, more specifically, we will be shown imagery of the world ending. Every time Eric and Andrew refuse to make a sacrifice, one of their attackers ritually kills themselves and Brocht turns on the news and shows them some sort of disaster deliberately styled after 9/11 and climate change imagery on a screen, the reality of which they cannot confirm, and for all the other problems with Borcht’s behavior, this turns out to be one of the most obstructive.
In this way, Knock at the Cabin incorporates a lot of ripped-from-the-headlines elements, but the couple’s doubt is perhaps the most news-relevant aspect of the story. It’s that “Black Mirror” dilemma, that they can’t know if something’s real if they only see it through a screen. The argument immediately recalls disinformation and the current climate of distrust around news and social media.
Borcht and company never try to assert a logical reason the family must sacrifice one of their own, only tell them they must die and bludgeon them with this very standard, pop-cultural apocalyptic imagery. That’s Knock at the Cabin’s overall point as a work, to explore this bridge between gay people existing and having a normal life and the apocalypse, a bridge that most people understand is a religious fiction, but continues to exist in our collective subconscious because of how embedded this sort of religiosity is on the overall culture.
Writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan clearly has strong feelings on queerness in media and the relationships that have emerged between queer tropes and larger narratives, but he hasn’t always been known for this. His 2019 crossover Glass was identified as a particularly queer superhero movie, but then, superhero movies are inherently queer, and in the same way queerness can easily be mapped onto early films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Village – again, we run straight into the fact that everything was always queer the entire time.
I appreciate that they’re still letting Shyamalan make movies. Knock at the Cabin is his second in a package deal with last year’s Old, and he’ll probably be on a short leash forever. He’s a good storyteller, and always was even at the zenith of his career, but he was so universally unpopular in the mid-late ‘00s that he’s never going to be allowed to just be a director again.
Neither film has a twist the way he’s known for. Old is a mystery, so a reveal at the end is to be expected, and Knock at the Cabin has suspense around whether or not these four clowns are for real. The gore is discretionary and extremely lacking, which is the wrong choice. As the four invaders sacrifice themselves in sequence, they each cover up first with white bags to contain their soon-to-be-crushed heads, and even the final sacrifice, who slits his own throat, gives out a pitiful trickle of blood filmed from the torso down, closer to a nosebleed than the geyser of blood that wound would unleash. The ritual violence horrifies the characters, and it needs to horrify the audience too for the film to function properly.
Knock at the Cabin’s biggest flaw is it doesn’t actually have a great deal to say about the tropes it’s pulling on. It shouldn’t need to, a tragedy where there was never a way out should work just fine, but the film feels toothless without at least a symbolic way forward.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.