“Knock at the Cabin” Understands the Limits of Queer Assimilation

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.” As 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 glass” and 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 “right” as a gay couple. They’ve already done so much. Leonard’s responses — his assurances, actually — that they were chosen at random because of the “purity” of 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.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 80 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. Guess you have more tolerance than I do for watching a movie made by a straight man who changed the plot of the original book in order to force a queer character to murder their life partner lmao but go off

      • If the gods are cruel and give religious extremists (including someone who has already gay-bashed!!) visions requiring them to kidnap gays and their young child and demand that they kill each other, all so that MAYBE the gods will choose NOT to annihilate humanity for no reason…why shouldn’t a pair of queers refuse the premise and try to fight the gods?

        • I’m not trying to change your opinion at all because you’re entitled to it even if I disagree but none of the invaders were religious. Actually, the movie went to great lengths to not portray them that way (one of the characters even said she never goes to church because she disliked it as a kid!). In addition to that, their visions didn’t say “kidnap the gays.” Their visions led them to the cabin and they had no idea who was going to be there. As I said in my review, this isn’t about queer people being killed because they’re queer. This is about the fragility of safety and the opportunities we have as HUMANS to take care of each other. I think this change in the ending provided a very necessary release from the bleakness of the original ending. Andrew and Eric were never going to be able to “fight the gods” because 2 people can’t fight the gods and win on their own. They’re left to walk the Earth alone in the original ending. That’s…….not great.

          • Thanks for taking the time to respond to my somewhat-hyperbolically-phrased comment, Stef! I definitely take your point that these are not people who had been particularly religious pre-visions, but as a queer person, I have had plenty of occasion to be wary of both pushy adult converts and people who have recently developed previously-unheld radical beliefs on internet message boards.

            I guess my biggest frustration with the movie — which I mostly liked! — was that it didn’t feel like it justified its own stakes. Who or what was demanding these sacrifices? Why? Do the sacrifices make these cruel forces stronger? How are Andrew and Eric supposed to know that the gods’ wrath will actually be appeased if they make a choice? How are they supposed to know that the gods won’t just keep gaining power and torturing/killing other people in similarly horrifying ways? The answer to the last two questions might very well be “they don’t, but they believe that they have to try” and I think that would have been an interesting possibility to explore, especially given Shyamalan’s engagements with faith in his other films. As it stands, though, I left the film thinking “not a good enough reason to kill your family” — not because your family should be more important than every other human, but because if someone threatens to kill hostages if you don’t murder your partner, I don’t really think the most ethical path OR the most interesting story possibility is to just…murder your partner.

            (I realize, though, that I am maybe overthinking the theology in a story that’s more of a fable or thought experiment!)

        • I think you might be struggling with the genre of cosmic horror – where the divine or the supernatural are not benevolent caretakers or capricious but capable of being bargained with. In this type of story, whatever the powers that be are, they are alien in the truest sense of the word, with motivations we will never understand. If this were a different sci-fi/fantasy niche, fighting the gods would be possible. In this particular one, you can only die or die or possibly get lucky and live after some major trauma.

      • I actually thought that ending was way more interesting! It’s a classic ethical problem, would you kill one innocent person to save the world? World you kill one innocent person to save a world you don’t really believe is worth saving, to appease an angry god who let your child die? My personal ethical answer to that would be no.

  2. I loved this review. Not sure I’ll watch the movie, but so much of this really spoke to me, especially this: “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?”

    We should take the opportunity. We really should.

  3. My thing is, I’m sometimes an Andrew, and I definitely felt I related to him more than Eric here. So, I would want Eric to kill me! Andrew is not sold on all of this, so how will that affect Wen’s life? Is Daddy Andrew going to be stomping around, unsure whether his killing of his husband saved the world or if it was all bullshit and the world was never going to end anyway? Alternatively, Eric, who was sold, could continue living with his decision, convinced that it saved the world. He would be way more at peace, no?

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