There’s an old-school simplicity to M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin, a film he co-wrote with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman (and based on the novel of the same name by Paul Tremblay). Even at the opening credits, he uses the old logo of Universal Pictures and uses an old-style font and presentation of the opening credits. With further reading, he even used 90s-era lenses to give the film “an old-school thriller look.” And what you see in the trailer is exactly what this movie is about: a family is taken hostage by four strangers in a cabin in the woods, with the hopes that the family will choose one member to sacrifice to stop the apocalypse.
It’s as simple as it sounds, with a bit of dipping into the psychological thriller genre as it questions the veracity of the four strangers’ claim that the fate of the world rests upon the sacrifice of this one family. Most of the 110-minute running time is spent on that premise. While the film’s plot revolves around this conundrum – does the family believe them or not and can they escape from this situation unharmed or not? – it does go into flashbacks to create an emotional throughline for the family that serves to complicate things.
Because what contrasts that old-school simplicity of this simple narrative is the fact that the family is that of queer parents (two gay dads) and is multi-racial, as their daughter was adopted in Asia.
And it is in this character design setup where the film finds its profundity.
It’s not often that we see the main characters of a commercial psychological thriller to be led by gay parents. There was even an impulse that I had to fight back to question the sincerity of the choice. “Was it a checklist for progressive identity politics?” This is what happens when there’s not enough positive representation for the queer community that anything of the sort done in such a mainstream release is met with suspicion. Why can’t gay parents be the protagonists of any movie – regardless of genre?
And that the issues surrounding gay people and gay parents are at the crux of ‘Knock at the Cabin.’ As the film shifts to flashbacks to round out the history of this couple – Andrew and Eric played by Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff – we see the cruelty of asking any member of such a persecuted minority like the queer community to sacrifice a member of their chosen family for the sake of the world.
What makes it even more cruel is the fact that the apocalypse might not even hinge on their sacrifice and that these four strangers – led by the gentle giant Leonard, played by a transformed Dave Bautista – may just be psychotic or part of some strange and dangerous cult.
The film never goes into the easy scares and all the tension is predicated upon that premise: does the fate of the world hang in their sacrifice? Are these four strangers really telling the truth about their visions or are they crazy and out of their minds? And if it is the former, how does one even begin to make that decision?
There’s a lot of earnestness in the performances with incredible performances by Bautista, Groff, Aldridge and Kristen Cui, who plays the young daughter Wen, and Nikki Amuka-Bird, who plays one of Leonard’s associates. Always, there are very human moments presented by the four strangers that push the boundaries of what you can believe and then you must bear witness to what they are able to do for the family to make that choice.
Within this whole narrative, the issues of the queer community are really put into an emotional grinder (pun intended). For all the persecution and hate that they have taken for years, if the fate of the world was left to us having to make another sacrifice, would we do it? Would Andrew and Eric and Wen?
Shyamalan is in fine form here with his camera going in really close to his actor’s faces as if their humanity (and maybe even their sanity) is in full view. He focuses on the little details of each moment while at the same time moving the camera away from all the gruesome acts of violence. It’s all implied rather than the focus. It’s as if he doesn’t want us to get distracted by the choice, whether it is real or not.
There are no surprise twists here as one would expect from a Shyamalan film. The story reaches its resolution as best as it could but one thing is certain: it’s so wonderful to see gay parents at the center of this story and how their love is depicted as universal. The film never questions it and this movie is out there.
I hope more movies present queer characters as smoothly as this so that I’ll never have to be suspicious again.
Knock at the Cabin is now showing in cinemas nationwide. Buy your tickets here.