“Make the choice” demands the advertising tag line for M. Night Shyamalan’s theocratic thriller with a tagline as heavy with political implications as the peremptory plot. The latter’s orthodox overtones, a curious mix of cultish Christianity, archaic aggression and sectarian spectacle, retrospectively seem the plausible progression for a director whose films are littered with conspiracy theories, quasi-Christian lore and a constant emphasis on patriarchal family values. The cornerstones religion and reactionism are accompanied by a pattern of often intertwined key motives neatly fitting into the larger concepts: being chosen or singled out to play a specific role, a divine plan or predetermined fate, an existential truth which protagonists either can’t see or refuse to believe.
The forcefully forward allegories transmitting those ideas and unwavering approval of the gospel make for a curious kind of faith based movies. Signs has a family father regain his faith while discovering crop circles are indeed caused by aliens. The Sixth Sense already spells out in its title the faith which the purgatory story is rooted in. The Village pairs an exaltation of “blind faith” with surveillance schemes. The Unbreakable series mixes political paranoia with modernised myths of angels and demons. Old embraces traditional family values and the idea of big pharma plotting. Even the E. A. Poe inspired low budget thriller The Visit evolves around deadly deception, valid suspicion and the importance of biological family bonds.
What is perplexing about Shyamalan’s adaption of Paul Tremblay‘s novel The Cabin at the End of the World is not the unequivocal fundamentalism of its moral groundwork but the choice of the material. The source story would be perfect to illustrate the horror of the ever escalating demonisation and aggression queer people are currently facing in the US, and besides that, support an atheist argument. But with small but crucial changes, the plot not only conciliates but sanctifies the violence suffered by Eric (Jonathan Groff) and his partner Andrew (Ben Aldridge) as the titular cabin in the woods the two share with their little adoptive daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) is invaded by four strangers.
Hulking teacher Leonard (Dave Bautista), desperate nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), giddy diner cook Adriane (Abby Quinn), and cynical ex-con Redmond (Rupert Grint) want to convince the non-traditional core family to murder one of their own as sacrifice lest the world will end. A doomsday delusion like this doesn’t seem far fetched given the current reactionary paranoia often rooted in a firm believe that the mere existence of LGBTQ+ people would be harmful and dangerous. Though dialogue identifies the home invaders as personifications of human qualities – guidance, caring, nurturing and malice – they actually evoke reactionary character types. The staunch protector of old values, the religious zealot, the volatile camp follower, the angry white cis male.
The exemplary dissimilarity of the group who proceed to attack the fathers and tie them up, is uncannily reminiscent of the four-headed gang of alt-right women in Beth de Araújo’s engrossing debut feature Soft & Quiet. Whereas Araújo leaves not doubt about the monstrous nature of her characters – one of whom spouts the same defensive phrase as Adriane “I don’t hate anyone” – Shyamalan early on points out the truth of their claims. Removing the essential uncertainty of Tremblay’s novel which never reveals if the world is ending or if the invaders are delusional, not only robs the scenario of its ethical complexity but its suspense. Tension is deliberately played down in favour of twisted teachings.
One of the looming theological questions is addressed indirectly but insidiously by Leonard’s musing that the couple was chosen because “your love is so pure.” This apparent affirmation of queer love is as treacherous as the papal proclamations that being gay was a sin but also that god would not forget any of his children. Knock at the Cabin paints a disturbingly drastic picture of what god has in mind when remembering his gay children. Their love might be pure, and the families they built perfect as it is with Andrew and Eric but they still have to sacrifice both lest they would be to blame for nothing less than the apocalypse.
Some might ask if a god who mass murders innocent people is an untrustworthy sadist. Not so Shyamalan. He cleverly changes key plot factors to shift sympathies against the victims, portraying their rationalisation of catastrophic occurrences and reluctance to comply as egoistical ignorance. As in his other genre films, to be reasonable is to be wrong. By inventing for Adrian a son who would perish if Wen’s family stays intact, he brings up the social spectre of an opposition of traditional and non-traditional families. Adrian’s straight white blood-related family is put against the gay adopted mixed-heritage family that is embraced with the hypocrisy of the “hate the sin, love the sinner” gospel.
Unsurprisingly, one of them has to die and it is the less conventionally masculine Eric. Uncomfortably recalling the self-loathing and suicide of so many fictional queer characters, he begs his lover to kill him. Flashes forward show Andrew as proud single father of an adult Wen, suggesting that literally and symbolically killing off his gay half will convert him into a proper member of straight society. The final moments remove any ambiguity wether executing Eric was the right choice. It is in this scenario the horror of which lies in its conviction that innocent people would have to die for a greater good. To underline these ideas, the ending hits a cynically cheerful note.
The last scene and credits are accompanied by Wen’s favourite song which her fathers sang along with her on the journey there as a family bonding habit. The song plays on the radio like one more celestial confirmation that everything that just happened was god’s plan and now all is well, nevermind that Andrew and Wen are bereaved. Redefining the song’s personal significance from the happiness of an alternative family to the annihilation of this family under gruesome circumstances, yet coding this moment as “happy end” installs hostile heteronormativity as prerequisite for some kind of sacred cosmic order: one that not only legitimises misguided ideas of religiously motivated killing with kindness but canonises them.
- OT: Knock at the Cabin
- Director: M. Night Shyamalan
- Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Sherman, Paul Tremblay, Steve Desmond
- Country: USA
- Year: 2023
- Running Time: 100 min.
- Cast: Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint, Abby Quinn Jackman, Kristen Cui, McKenna Kerrigan, Ian Merrill Peakes, Denise Nakano, Rose Luardo, Billy Vargus, Satomi Hofmann, Kevin Leung, Lee Avant, Odera Adimorah
- Release date: 03.02.2023 (US)
- Image © Universal