How Quickly Pity Leads to Love
By Kyle Turner

Knock at the Cabin
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan, U.S., Universal

The premise of Knock at the Cabin, which presents gay parents Andrew and Eric (Ben Adlridge and Jonathan Groff) and their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) as possible saviors of humanity at the end of the world, carries with it some social baggage. It reminds audiences—even at times goes out of its way to do so—of how often queer people and their aspirations to make lives of their own have been demonized and how frequently their very existence has been associated with end times. (A parade of corny-looking members of the Westboro Baptist Church singing a Lady Gaga parody, the lyrics changed to “damn homosexuals to Hell,” comes to mind.)

But the doomsdayers of M. Night Shyamalan’s newest aren’t the slur-spewing extremists some might expect to hold this family hostage. Fronted by Dave Bautista’s hulking Leonard, the quartet —squared out by meek nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), anxious Adriane (Abby Quinn), and fireball Redmond (Rupert Grint)—may be armed with crudely assembled weapons, but they insist they’re just there to do a job. They have a sheepish presence. And their message isn’t that gays are bringing about the apocalypse: rather, they’re the ones to stop it from happening.

Based on Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World, Shyamalan’s film grabs the viewer, using the director’s humanism like a Chinese finger trap. Split proves a useful antecedent, where the filmmaker’s proclivities toward genre problematize its aspirations to empathize with its mentally ill lead, played by James McAvoy. If you can’t get onboard for that kind of ludicrousness, the film, whatever its formal merits, betrays its goals by making that character a cartoonish predator rather than a sympathetic monster in the Universal vein. Thus, in Knock at the Cabin, Shyamalan and screenwriters Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman cast a gay couple with an adopted child as the Sword of Damocles, off which the fate of humanity rests. Andrew, Eric, and Wen, held hostage in their lakeside cabin rental, are told by the invaders that they must make a decision to sacrifice one of their family members to save everyone else in the world, inverting the usual extremist take. Time is running out, tensions are running high, and all we can do is watch.

Shyamalan makes sure we’re watching. In a 2.39:1 frame, he tightly closes in, straight on or in profile, as if daring both the audience and its tied-up characters to disbelieve these four intruders. The camera's ability to catch the slightest doubt or potential fabrication across a visage gives these close-up shots in Knock at the Cabin—particularly of Bautista’s weather-worn face—two jobs: one, to test the veracity of the intruders' claims about the coming armageddon, and two, to allow the audience to examine whether they believe this family wasn’t targeted for its queerness. Andrew, Eric, and Wen’s goodness are reinforced through dialogue multiple times, and their emotional baggage is disclosed intermittently through personal flashbacks. They truly love each other because they’ve worked hard to do so. Almost all the sociopolitical undercurrents are implied simply by the presence of its characters, though the script adds a few clunkier moments that underline the problem of homophobia. Thus, humanity, goodness, and sacrifice begin a queasy dialectic with queerness, assimilation, and the filmmaker’s insistence on his own tolerance. Knock at the Cabin, for better or worse, implies that queer martyrdom is preferable to the old-fashioned Bible-thumping idea of gays as catalyzing agents for apocalypse.

Yet, it’s hard to begrudge Shyamalan this somewhat icky frame when he exhibits such exceptional skill at directing actors, alongside his usual formal elegance. As he delivers the unfortunate news of his mission, Bautista’s trembling lips convey a man who is being ripped apart inside: he’d rather be anywhere else. Bautista displays a gripping ability to let emotion and feeling trickle out, playing against his bearish body. He’s an actor of impressive discipline and thought in this film, his eyes pleading for Andrew and Eric to make a decision and yet retaining the empathy of knowing it’s an impossible choice.

Shyamalan gives Aldridge and Groff ample opportunity to sketch their relationship through subtle nonverbal cues and gestures, even as the two are bound in rope for much of the film. Aldridge is perhaps given the most to do emotionally, toggling between tear-streaked fury and cratering sadness; Groff is significantly quieter. But this discrepancy, rather than create obnoxious relational binaries, lends the actors an entire second film to act in, one that’s closer to a two- or three-hander living room drama. The uncertainty and desperation behind his vacant looks articulate his teetering belief in the doomsdayers’ claims. It’s the kind of human drama that feels bizarre in an apocalyptic thriller like this, but which serves to deepen and open up the emotional terrain of the film, usually more adroitly than the flashbacks.

The film gets sucked into another paradox: no matter the outcome there can be no happy ending—even if the world is saved through the couple's sacrifice, the notion of the gay couple as liberal ideal has been irrevocably fragmented. Bautista tells them if they don’t choose, they’re destined to walk the wreckage alone, both “cosmically” and literally. It’s lose-lose. Overusing the “Bury Your Gays” trope to malign work for not adhering to some kind of representational and moral rubric is always limiting, often condescending, and yet it’s tempting to trudge it out for this film. It might not apply here, since these characters are central to the narrative and are given, at least by the cast, an inner depth. However, it is difficult to escape the nagging ideological question: Is the price of assimilation really the end of the world?

By putting these characters in thrilling visual peril, Shyamalan, cinematographers Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer, and production designer Naaman Marshall have created a film that muddles two distinct feelings: love and pity. Do we love these people, because we’re told they’re good but also because they are so painfully idyllic in their white-picket-fence perfection? Or do we pity them because they are in a terrible situation, and because they are being used to measure our moral progress, while eliding attention to the very real threats LGBTQ people currently face, with new anti-queer legislation splashed across the news every other day? Perhaps it makes no difference when the sky is falling.