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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Benjamin Lee

Knock at the Cabin puts a gay couple in apocalyptic jeopardy, for better or worse

Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, and Jonathan Groff in Knock at the Cabin
Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, and Jonathan Groff in Knock at the Cabin Photograph: Universal Pictures/Universal Studios

There’s something scary trying to get inside in M Night Shyamalan’s new chiller Knock at the Cabin, which opened at number one over the weekend. On the surface, it’s a home invasion narrative about a mysterious foursome with grisly-looking weapons trying to break their way into a remote cabin, inhabited by a visiting family. On closer look, it’s actually about violent visions of a biblical apocalypse trying to pierce through vulnerable minds with outsiders claiming the end is near unless the invaded make a terrible sacrifice. But with the three characters in jeopardy a gay couple and their adopted daughter, the film morphs again into something else, the horrors of reality forcing their way into the fragile idyll of progressivism.

It’s a strange, at times strangely not very good, movie (the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it all “deeply ridiculous”), but one that’s strangely fascinating for reasons it might not always be cognisant of, existing in a political space that feels mildly inadvertent and majorly confusing.

The glacially paced increase in visibility for gay characters at the multiplex (from ongoing blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tokenism in recent blockbusters like Thor: Love and Thunder and Jurassic World: Dominion to hard-to-miss centre staging in box office bombs like Bros and Spoiler Alert) has still, predictably, come with caveats and limitations. Within genre fare, queer characters have slowly started to appear on the sidelines in films like Truth or Dare, Freaky or 2022’s Scream but the closer they edge toward the spotlight, the more likely they are to be ushered away to a streamer, as shown with the Fear Street trilogy, Hulu’s Midnight Kiss or last year’s They/Them. Box office concerns, fear of alienating the straights, trump all.

There’s something quietly monumental then about Shyamalan, a proud commercialist, turning his eye toward Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World, an uneven yet eerie little nightmare that centres a gay couple and their adopted daughter. In the story, four strangers interrupt their remote vacation with a collection of gnarly weapons, claiming that the world will come to an end unless they decide to kill one of their own. The couple assume, as many queer people would, that the invasion is a homophobic attack, that these zealots have crafted an elaborate scheme in order to punish them for their sexuality. It makes for uneasily compelling tension, playing on relatable fears of religion, Republicanism and rural America, with acts of violence against LGBTQ+ people in the US surging in the last year.

But the imposers insist that this is not the case, an unusually polite plea for peace offered up for people tied to chairs, and we soon discover that these biblical plagues are real and the only way to stop them is to make a terrible decision.

Regardless of intention – and I genuinely don’t believe that the film is coming from a place of bigotry – there’s something almost comical about the first ever glossy, wide-releasing studio thriller to centre gay characters hinged on the idea that if they don’t rip apart their family, God will punish us all. We see the waves rising and skies falling via news reports, each time they refuse to do the unimaginable, and the contrast between two privileged gay men choosing their own safety and happiness over the fate of the world becomes increasingly absurd, as if we have no choice but to root for their destruction. Along with being warned of “a lonely life” ahead or dangers over sexual health, a tired piece of faux concern trotted out by homophobes is that same-sex relationships will ultimately lead to the end of the world, biological differences causing a decimation in population (as if there would ever be enough gay people for that to be a concern). In the film, the head invader, played excellently by Dave Bautista, explains that if no sacrifice is made, after everyone else turns to dust, the family will be alone, wandering the empty plains, left with the selfishness of their life choices.

It’s led to some referring to it as a “weirdly conservative parable” and a Christian review respecting the film’s decision to show “what can happen when tried and true family units are forsaken for untested alternative arrangements”. A tweet over the weekend describes a showing at which a woman “cheered when bad things happened to the gay characters and loudly sang hymns through the credits”.

The film is a more overtly religious tale than the book (a scene detailing how the four strangers are in fact the four horsemen of the apocalypse is one of many clunky new additions) and it also makes the gay family more obviously responsible for the thousands of lives that are lost while they make their choice. The book is in some ways grimmer – the daughter gets killed accidentally – but the film is more conclusive: the destruction stops when the gay family is no more (one dad is forced to shoot the other at the end).

Coincidentally, the film arrived just days after an internet-breaking episode of HBO’s The Last of Us that broke off from the show’s main narrative to tell of a gay couple also faced with the end of the world (their story ends with a double suicide). But while that aimed for the heartstrings, Shyamalan is focused on something else – exactly what I’m not quite sure and perhaps neither is he. His gay characters are too thinly developed and far too muted to be seen as people we should care that much about let alone buy as a couple (notably despite the R rating, we don’t even get a kiss from the pair). The most prominent piece of information from their backstory is that one of them was violently queerbashed in a bar years earlier which led to the purchase of a gun, a red meat red flag that seems to smugly suggest that given a little push, even those pearl-clutching gay liberals will learn to appreciate a rightwing way of life. The redneck queerbasher, played by Rupert Grint of all people, ends up being one of the invaders, a development that is as fruitless in the film as it was in the book.

What all of this provocation amounts to is perhaps subjective. For a hardline “keep them away from our kids” Bible-basher, it could be a necessary cautionary tale about the cost of “sin”. For a queer person it could be an effectively rattling horror about the depressing price of assimilation. For me, it was more of a contextually intriguing curio than anything else. As someone who has craved more gay characters in genre films, it’s a thrill to see them front and centre, trying to survive in a situation of high-stakes jeopardy rather than dying of Aids or providing advice to a straight women (I did get a cathartically gleeful kick from seeing one of the dads efficiently beat up one of the intruders). In one weekend, it’s made more than both Bros and Spoiler Alert did in their entire runs last year, the first film to knock Avatar 2 from the top spot since it was released two months prior. This could be seen as either good (millions happy to see a gay-led thriller) or bad (millions happy to see a gay-led thriller where the gays are tortured).

Would it be nice to see queer characters fronting a sexy courtroom thriller or a glossy slasher not quite so punishingly related to sexuality? Sure, but for now, Knock at the Cabin is a major step, it just might take us a while to figure out exactly what direction that’s in.

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