The time it took to translate the 2018 book by Jeff Tremblay to 2023 film finds our modern family in entirely different apocalyptic times. Spoilers for both ahead.
I have mixed feelings about M. Night Shyamalan's body of work. His early features were known for their unforgettable twist endings; The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable were game-changers, but the trick wore a little thin in later releases. I figured out the twist in The Village about 15 minutes in when one of the characters from this seemingly mystical fantasy forest town used the word "dumpster," and The Happening was one of the worst films I've ever seen with a twist that was basically announced in the opening sequence (that still doesn't make very much sense: losing your survival instinct is not the same as becoming actively self-destructive!). I thought The Visit was clever and deserved a better reception than it got, but I felt like Old was plodding and convoluted. But when I saw the trailer for Knock at the Cabin, I was willing to set my skepticism aside and believe that this would be one of Shyamalan's better offerings.
And it is. Don't get me wrong, I thought the movie was great, but just like the characters at the center of the narrative, it's caught up in unfortunate circumstances.
Based on Jeff Tremblay's 2018 novel Cabin at the End of the World, the story centers on Eric and Andrew and their adopted daughter Wen. They've gone to a vacation house to relax and swim and capture grasshoppers when they are set upon by four random strangers with makeshift weapons who claim that the end of the world is upon us. They are not there to harm the family, but rather to ask them to make a choice: if they will willingly sacrifice one member of the family, they will avert the end of times. Every time they refuse, a new disaster will strike with thousands of people dying. The cultists will not harm the family, but each time they ask and are refused, they also kill one of their own. If the family refuses four times, after the last cultist dies the world will be consumed and they will be forced to walk the world alone in suffering and despair. You know, typical end of the world stuff.
After the first and second refusals, they turn on the news and watch as disasters unfold: first, earth quakes in the Pacific Ocean cause huge tsunamis near Hawaii and the west coast that leave mass destruction. One of the earthquakes happened hours before the cultists even arrived, so Andrew argues that this is some sort of impossible coincidence or that the cultists have somehow altered what they are seeing on the television. Later, they watch as a plague starts killing hundreds of thousands of people with no cure in sight. Again, Andrew claims that this must be some sort of manipulation.
With the third refusal, planes begin falling from the sky and lightning strikes begins etting the world on fire and it becomes harder and harder for the family to believe that this is all some sort of trick, but will it be enough for them to make this terrible decision?
In the novel, tragedy strikes when Andrew tries to make an escape and retrieves a weapon from the family's car. In the chaos that ensues, Wen is shot and killed. Leonard, the leader of the cultists, says that because it was an accident, it's not enough to satisfy the requirements and they will still need to choose a sacrifice willingly to avert the apocalypse. Andrew and Eric choose to believe that Wen's death would be enough and start the long walk back from the cabin to see what has happened to the world. The ending is ambiguous and bleak, though it does leave some room for hope that the apocalypse could be held off.
In interviews, Shyamalan has said that he knew he wanted to craft a different ending, and the divergence is part of the reason for the change in title (each story is its own story with its own resolution). With the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and the troubling nature of depicting a child's death, he wanted to find a different resolution. In the film version, Andrew holds strong to his belief that the family needs to stick together and they don't owe the world any sacrifice, but Eric convinces him that they need to make the sacrifice. He was injured in the initial break-in, receiving a bad concussion and becoming sensitive to light, but he thinks he saw something in a flash of light before the cultists make their first sacrifice. He wants Andrew to kill him so that Andrew and Wen can survive and avert the end of the world. Andrew resists at first, telling Eric that the world doesn't deserve their sacrifice, but eventually honor's Eric's wishes. The two take the cultists' vehicle and drive back to town where they see reports that all of the strange disasters have abated, stopping as inexplicably as they started.
I enjoyed the movie and I thought the set up was fascinating. Interspersed throughout, we got to see flashbacks into Eric and Andrew's history. Andrew's strained relationship with his unaccepting parents. Eric referring to Andrew as his "wife's brother" when they go to the orphanage to adopt Wen. Andrew being violently attacked in a bar by a redheaded homophobe who may or may not be one of the cultists that have now invaded their vacation home. Through all of it, they are committed to each other: "Always together" is their constant mantra. Andrew is the pragmatist, the one with the most fire and anger at the world, while Eric is softer and more compassionate, and more likely to express a faith in something greater than himself.
It should be a poignant and heart-breaking moment when Eric decides that he should be the sacrifice to save the world, but I just can't help feeling disgusted by it. Queer and trans people have always been disposable to our society. How many queer men died before anyone really did anything about AIDS? How many queer and trans people have killed themselves because society wasn't willing to allow them to live full, unfettered lives? How many people have had to lose their jobs, their families, their friends during their culture war battles to attain basic equal rights and representation?
This is not anything new, but seeing this film now, given the absolutely terrifying onslaught of anti-trans, anti-queer legislation just sits wrong with me. I agree with Andrew when Eric is saying, "But everyone will die!" and he answers, "Then let them die!" A narrative about the necessity of queer suffering to ensure the continuation of the world, regardless of the intent of the filmmakers, just feels nihilistic and misguided. I want to lose myself in the story, but it's a story that is painfully familiar: queer people being asked to sacrifice their lives for the comfort of others who don't even recognize or acknowledge their suffering.
I get it: this is a horror movie and horror means suffering, it means destruction, it means characters existing in terror. And this is certainly a step in the right direction in terms of representation; it wasn't long ago that a family like this wouldn't have appeared onscreen in any form, let alone in this sort of nuanced and compassionate way. It's not anyone's fault that this is simply entering the landscape at an unfortunate time. Leonard, played masterfully by Dave Bautista, assures the family that they haven't been targeted because of their queerness and even postulates that they may have been chosen because of the purity of their love, but those concessions do nothing to address the unthinkable choice that they are being asked to make.
Queer joy is transformative. Trans joy is transformative. To live in a world like this, that thinks of you the way that it does, and still find moments of pure joy is a revolutionary act, and Leonard and his crew represent all of those voices that say, "You need to tone it down, you need to be less than you are for the comfort of others." It's clearly not an intentional choice, but anyone who has worked with the stickier aspects of diversity education can tell you that one of the first and most important lessons you need to learn is that intent does not equal impact.
Some might feel that there is some balance here because Redmond (played by Rupert Grint in a surprisingly creepy performance), who is eventually revealed to be the man who assaulted Andrew at the bar some years ago, is the first cultist to be sacrificed and reveals his fear to the couple. But even if we read his death as a sort of cosmic justice for his earlier hateful actions, this doesn't change the fact that Eric and Andrew are still being asked to sacrifice one of their lives not for atonement for some crime, but simply for existing. And that is exactly what this wave of legislation is all about: punishing queer, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people for simply existing.
Maybe someday down the road, when things have settled and some sense of justice and decency has been restored to the world, I'll be able to sit down and watch this film with different eyes. I'll be able to enjoy the complex, beautiful performances of Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge as they grapple with this impossible choice and the implications of their refusals. It really is one of Shyamalan's better films.
But right now, in this moment, it just feels like it's asking too much - not only of this embattled family in a cabin in the woods, but of the queer and trans audience who are living in a very dark and dangerous time of their own.