Author’s Note: This review contains spoilers.
The world is burning all around us, but it’s rare that we ever come to any consensus regarding what we’re supposed to do about it. Some of us are content to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the signs and symptoms of our impending doom. Others are complacent in our nihilism, accepting our fate as a result of the ways we’ve lived for a millennium. A small few of us are actively participating in the scorching through conscious and/or careless destruction. Many of us are fighting to put the fire out and believe we’d give up almost anything to extinguish it. Of course, in reality, the blaze is moving much slower than it does in the apocalyptic media of our time, but that’s the question that propels the action of M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, Knock at the Cabin. If you were given the opportunity to make what seems like an impossible decision in order to prevent the total incineration of the world around you, could you do it? Would you do it?
Based on Paul Tremblay’s short novel The Cabin at the End of the World, Knock opens on the very beginning of a family vacation at a remote cabin in rural Pennsylvania. Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric’s (Jonathan Groff) daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), is catching grasshoppers in the brush that surrounds the cabin when she’s approached by Leonard (Dave Bautista). From the start, it’s clear that Leonard is adept at speaking and interacting with children, which eases Wen’s initial discomfort and makes her less anxious about his gentle insistence that he needs her family’s help to “save the world.wp_postsAs Wen notices three other people (Redmond played by Rupert Grint, Adriane played by Abby Quinn, and Sabrina played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) brandishing homemade weapons, she runs into the house to warn her fathers about the strangers. Leonard knocks on the door asking to be let in but, naturally, the family doesn’t trust them.
Andrew and Eric struggle to figure out exactly how they’re supposed to defend themselves. They have a gun, but it’s in the back of their Land Rover. They want to call the police, but the phone line’s been cut. Just as Andrew and Eric find some fireplace tools to use as improvised weapons, Leonard, Sabrina, Adriane, and Redmond find alternative ways into the house. Andrew and Eric fight back with force but, ultimately, their collective strength is outmatched by the fact that they’re outnumbered. After the struggle, Leonard and his crew tie Andrew and Eric up to deliver an important message: The apocalypse is coming, but Andrew, Eric, and Wen can prevent it by making the choice to sacrifice a member of their family. Until then, a member of the crew will be executed as a new terror is unleashed on the world around them: first, tsunamis; second, an outbreak of an incurable and highly contagious disease; third, the skies will fall “like pieces of glasswp_postsand break on the ground; and last, an everlasting and all-encompassing darkness. Should the darkness come, Andrew, Eric, and Wen will be forced to live on Earth all by themselves, “permanently and cosmically alone.”
It’s an impossible choice. One that, at first, seems easy enough to Andrew. Convinced that Andrew and Eric were chosen by this crew because of their queerness, Andrew pushes back against the group’s assertion that the family must make the choice to kill someone and persuades Eric to keep refusing also. Andrew contends that we’re forced to exist in a world that hates, so why should we care about saving it? This question about the responsibility marginalized people have to a world that despises them is punctuated throughout the film by flashbacks to Andrew and Eric’s past. The flashbacks show us moments where Andrew’s family is unwilling to engage with him and Eric because they’re gay, where Andrew is the victim of a homophobic attack (by Redmond, as it turns out) at a bar and subsequently takes up self-defense training and buys the aforementioned gun, where Andrew and Eric have to lie on their paperwork and in person in order to adopt their daughter from an orphanage in East Asia. Their lives, like all queer people’s lives, are inundated by homophobia and anti-queerness despite their best efforts to assimilate to this society that tells them assimilation will grant them full acceptance and never makes good on the promise. In Andrew’s eyes, they’ve done everything “rightwp_postsas a gay couple. They’ve already done so much. Leonard’s responses — his assurances, actually — that they were chosen at random because of the “puritywp_postsof their love for each other doesn’t work to prove them otherwise (at first).
Like all of Shyamalan’s greatest features, what unfolds throughout the course of the film is a family drama but on the grandest of scales. Knock is equally about this one, queer family as it is about our relationships to everyone else, the connections we have through the fact of biology and culture, the fact of our shared humanity. Throughout the film, Leonard and his crew keep reminding Andrew and Eric of what’s at stake if they decide not to choose: the demise of everyone on Earth. Leonard, Sabrina, Adriane, and Redmond didn’t take up this cause just because they’re trying to save themselves. It’s much more than that. For Sabrina, it’s her much younger half-sister who she helps raise. Adriane has a young son named Charlie who she believes deserves the opportunity to grow up. Leonard is mostly thinking about his current and former second grade students, kids who he believes will grow up to do great things. And then, there’s Wen, too. Should she be sentenced by Andrew and Eric to traverse the smoldering world with just her fathers for eternity?
I think it’s easy to read Knock as another take on forced queer martyrdom, to see it as a weak response to the realities of far right indoctrination and the violence it causes. But by the end, I think it’s obvious that it isn’t. Andrew, Eric, and Wen weren’t chosen because their family is queer, but their queerness does matter. Andrew is right to instinctively wonder if he and his family should be responsible for a world that wants them dead, but Eric sees something else. He sees how important it is for them to make this impossible decision. He agrees with Andrew that the world — or at least, the abstraction of it — isn’t worth saving, but Wen is. Their daughter, this proof of their love for one another and the influence queer people have on the world, deserves to live. She deserves to grow up, become something, and fight back against the obstacles her fathers had to overcome to give her the life she gets. They aren’t giving their lives for nothing.
Through Eric, Shyamalan and his co-writers allow the queer characters of this narrative something we don’t often get in art or in the real world: our rightful power over and credit for the continued survival and existence of the world. In Knock, queer people have as much agency and authority as anyone else. We’re just as responsible for the world’s creation as we are for its ending. It’s true what Andrew believes about our lives — that many of us don’t get the ones we deserve, that we’re subjected to seemingly endless amounts of violence, that the violence we endure isn’t even often thought of as violence in the first place. But Eric asks Andrew (and us), what would it mean for us to take away that chance from others? From literally everyone else? It wouldn’t break the chains of trauma we’ve faced. It would only perpetuate it further, force it onto our real and metaphorical children, just like it’s been hoisted onto us.
Throughout Shyamalan’s work, you can see similar lines of inquiry show up over and over again, especially in Knock and in his 2004 film, The Village (my favorite of his films). He’s concerned with how we keep each other safe when the world isn’t safe for us, how we prevent violence and harm from occurring without using violence and harm to enforce that prevention, how we create a world that’s actually just, and how we can shatter the illusion of safety in order to genuinely make the world safe. Knock takes these inquiries a step further through the lives of its queer characters. It reminds us about the costs of assimilation and how we rarely reap the supposed benefits of it, about how much queer people have to give up in order to combat the homophobia and anti-queerness of our society, about how the illusion of safety that queer people have in their lives can be so easily fractured and ripped apart through actions we have no control over.
When we’re finally given a flashback to the very beginning of their vacation in the cabin, it shows us the relative ease and happiness Andrew, Eric, and Wen feel together as a unit. Andrew and Eric have seemingly beaten the odds to construct this small slice of heaven for themselves and for Wen, and then it’s swiftly taken away from them. This case might be different than all the other hate-fueled experiences they’ve had before, but it has the same possible outcome: This life they’ve built has to be destroyed, and it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair. What we’re left with is the reality of living in this world as queer people: We have the power to fight back, but we won’t always be victorious, because that’s the nature of being alive. Nothing in our lives is guaranteed except for death, and everything can be taken away simply because of circumstance. Regardless, we do have the power to choose whether or not we’re going to save the products of our existence, of our love, of our beauty, of our lives together, of our brilliance, of our fight to survive. And when we’re given the opportunity to prevent the world from burning further, shouldn’t we take it? I walked out of Knock at the Cabin knowing I would. And I have a sneaking suspicion Shyamalan would, too.