In M. Night Shyamalan’s new thriller “Knock at the Cabin,” the fate of the planet lies in the hands and whims of… a pair of single-child-family gay dads? Regardless of your thoughts on the movie’s quality, that’s certainly a tick toward representation even if the film comes in a largely conservative package that isn’t entirely Shyamalan’s conception. It’s based on the horror novel “The Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul G. Tremblay, a source material much bleaker than Shyamalan’s faith-based end-times and cheaply hopeful interpretation of the text. As sturdily crafted as “Knock at the Cabin” may be, Shyamalan’s funny games never achieve the profundity they’re reaching for, ending up as a preachy end-times message movie wrapped up in a slick horror package.
In the same way “Unbreakable” disguised itself as a superhero movie before revealing different stripes beneath its cape, “Knock at the Cabin” begins as a traditional home invasion thriller. Daddy Andrew (Ben Aldridge, definitely evoking that nomenclature and all it entails) and Daddy Eric (Jonathan Groff, never quite daddy-adjacent but still in his twunk era) have taken their daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), for a summer vacation at a lakeside New Hampshire cabin. The outsides have that rustic “Carrie Bradshaw in Suffern” feel, but the insides are giving gay-decorator, toile de jouy realness.
While the Daddies unpack, Wen wanders alone in the woods — lushly green surroundings obviously meant to evoke some kind of Edenic landscape at the end, or beginning of, the world. There, she meets a mysterious, bespectacled man named Leonard (Dave Bautista, projecting eerie calm), who says he’s here to make friends “with you and your dads.” No sooner have Wen, Andrew, and Eric settled into their home away from home, then Leonard and three other henchmen of the apocalypse (Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Abby Quinn) are busting their way through the doors, armed with tools that look ready-made for going medieval on somebody’s ass. Leonard revealed they are here to complete the “most important job in the history of the world,” but before the exposition can continue, “Knock at the Cabin” kicks into full invasion gear, and suddenly, everyone including the Daddies is suspiciously skilled at melee combat. That’s for a reason that will get unpacked in unsubtle, social-hot-button-issue-pushing fashion later on.
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
Eventually, Leonard, Redmond (Grint), Sabrina (Amuka-Bird), and Ardiane (Quinn) get the family tied up after a messy scuffle. (One hilarious flyaway detail sees Leonard gingerly sweeping up broken glass on the floor, telling us this guy’s not all bad but there’s still something fishy here.) Here’s the kicker: The foursome are here to save the world from annihilation, but if Andrew, Eric, or Wen agree to willingly make a sacrifice from among their kin, then the imminent apocalypse will be stopped. And killing one of the four harbingers of doom, or themselves, won’t count, either, as the family has to kill one of their own number deliberately for this cracked cosmic scheme to work.
When the family refuses, a strange ritual follows: One of the foursome’s heads (we won’t spoil who’s picked off first) is covered in a cloth, and they’re beaten to death by the other three. Immediately following, Leonard turns on the TV to images of shore-engulfing tidal waves destroying island nations, commercial jets falling out of the sky, world-ending plagues beset upon humanity. Andrew, the more rational half of the pair, insists Leonard and company have somehow timed their visit to knowing exactly when these segments were airing on TV. But Eric, slowly revealed to be the more sentimental and even spiritual softie of the two, is leaning in.
As with any Shyamalan joint, the back half of the film darts and loops with plenty of twisty moments and narrative-upending turns. And there are also the flashbacks — from Andrew and Eric adopting Wen in China to the couple’s strained dealings with homophobic parents — that lay out bear-traps for the plot beats to follow. Central to the film’s “progressive” premise (a married gay couple heading up a mainstream studio horror movie? Whoa) is a hate crime tied to Andrew’s past that is suddenly, now, very much in his present. This wouldn’t be a pseudo-gay studio movie without a hate crime tacked onto it, after all, and similarly, by the end, “Knock at the Cabin” reveals a weird religious purpose: The attack on this family is meant to symbolize evil’s greater forces attacking the (presumably American) family at large. And what’s happened to Wen and her Daddies is intended as a sobering reminder of life’s preciousness and the power of love. (Tremblay’s novel takes a way less comforting outing, for what it’s worth.)
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
At one point, Andrew accuses the group of being part of a “shared delusion” (he himself is a human rights attorney, which somehow affords him the credentials to make such a pronouncement). But if anything, Leonard and his cohorts are the less delusional, more calmly mannered of the bunch: Sabrina is woefully apologetic when she has to shoot Andrew in the leg to stop him from running, while Ardiane pulls the “I have a child card” when the Daddies start to get defensive.
“Knock at the Cabin” is impeccably staged, including cinematography by “The Lighthouse” DP Jarin Blaschke, whose camera dollies and careens to reveal new, unexpected information in a single take. There are the brilliantly choreographed sequences of aforementioned melee fighting and effectively chilling doomsday images played out on the television screen, as jets keep falling from the sky and children are dying from an inexplicable pox in droves. But Leonard’s incantations of how “humanity has been judged” with every passing kill at the cabin return “Knock at the Cabin” to the hokey, pseudo-Christian terrain of some of this filmmaker’s worst tendencies (as with “Signs”). You might mistake the gay couple at the helm for some kind of Hollywood foot-forward, but don’t: The only aspect of Andrew and Eric that feels explicitly queer is the hate crime attached to them. That’s no fault of Groff or Aldridge, who have a cheesy, nerdy kind of chemistry that makes the case for their heading up a thriller that’s better, deeper, and more deserving of them.
“Knock at the Cabin” opens from Universal Pictures on Friday, February 3.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.