Queering Cinema: Is 'Knock at the Cabin' Queer Trauma Porn?

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Sunday February 19, 2023
Originally published on February 5, 2023

Jonathon Groff and Kristen Cui in "Knock at the Cabin"
Jonathon Groff and Kristen Cui in "Knock at the Cabin"  

Spoiler Alert: the following story reveals crucial plot points of "Knock at the Cabin."

A gay family on vacation find themselves confronted by four people with home-made weapons that met in a chat room. The four tell the family -- husbands Eric and Andrew (Jonathon Groff and Ben Aldridge), and their 7-year old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) -- that the Apocalypse is going to occur unless one family member kills another. If this were a news story, it would fall read like a horrific home invasion hate crime, but this being a M. Night Shyamalan's movie, it is just a hook for a thriller with supernatural underpinnings. Does it also have homophobic vibes?

Both film and the novel it is adapted from, "Paul G. Tremblay's novel The Cabin at the End of the World," have the same premise: four strangers wielding home-made, Medieval-styled weapons overwhelm the family and tell them the miserable choice they need to make. Not surprisingly, Eric and Andrew reject their notion as some kind-of bat-ass, 'Q-Anon-like Group Think' that reinforces the beliefs held by many conservative Christians: God doesn't like gays and blames them for many of the world's ills. One of them denies it: "We don't have one homophobic bone in our bodies," says the nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird). But when one of their four oppressors, Redmond (Rupert Grint), is recognized as a man who gaybashed Eric some years before, her veracity is questioned. Still when the prophecies are shown to be true, Eric and Andrew are caught in moral dilemma not seen since Meryl Streep had to choose between her children in "Sophie's Choice."

With a 69% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has divided critics, with some looking beyond the standard criticism of a Doomsday thriller and finding an uncomfortable commentary about LGBTQ+ culture in contemporary life. It comes at a queer Zeitgeist moment: Never before have queer culture been both more culturally integrated, which may be why Shyamalan felt comfortable enough to cast two out actors to play the gay dads; and more under attack, notably by conservatives, including many preachers who bait their followers with anti-gay rhetoric. (Look no further than this example from last week.)

Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, and Jonathon Groff
Ben Aldridge, Kristen Cui, and Jonathon Groff  

Queer writer Ky Stewart writing on the Australian site Lifehacker put it this way: "'Knock At The Cabin' is a heartbreaking movie to watch and not for reasons that you might expect. It was even more devastating to watch as a queer person."

In the film, the four intruders, led by gentle giant Leonard (Dave Bautista), spend a good deal of screen time convincing Andrew, Eric and Wen that their collective vision is real. For Stewart their arguments echo those who tell gay people they are the reason for society's ills. "Queer people have long been told by society that they are the causes of the tsunami that will end earth or the Australian bushfires or just about any disaster impacting humanity. As such, Andrew, Eric and many of us in the audience can't help but think this family has been chosen to be sacrificed because they are queer."

As the film moves towards its grim conclusion, it becomes apparent that Shyamalan is not going to embrace Eric and Andrew's rejection of the intruders' notions. Instead, he favors the intruders because their vision is true. "At first, I thought 'Knock At The Cabin' was going to use the narrative of truth against those who believe in such things, but no. Shyamalan and the book the movie is based on, basically allow those people to be proven right. In this film, the views of bigots are essentially shown the be the only way to save humanity from its doom," adds Stewart.

Richard Lawson at Vanity Fair echoes this sentiment. He initially sees the film as a critique of climate change with well-to-do bourgies (Eric and Andrew) as examples of those who pay lip service to climate change, but never make any real sacrifice. But he adds: "One does wonder, though, if there is something sinisterly pointed in the fact that it's this particular family receiving this message. Are Andrew and Eric, this well-off white gay couple with their Land Rover and their daughter adopted from East Asia, meant to be damning examples of hypocritical, progressive, coastal heedlessness? I don't think that's really how Shyamalan intends it—at least I'm trusting he doesn't—but the movie could be seen as making that case anyway."

Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint, and Dave Bautista
Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, Rupert Grint, and Dave Bautista  

Lawson goes on to point out that in embracing these four conspiracy theorists Shyamalan falls on ugly homophobic memes that have surface in recent years. "Many of those people have dredged up old talking points and burnished them into new weapons, among them the noxious idea that gay people and trans people are causing civilizational collapse by co-opting children and upending the traditional nuclear family—which is, in these people's outlook, the bedrock of human existence. It is one thing for a movie to tangle with what those people are saying. It is another to, at the end, present a scenario in which they're kinda, maybe, sorta proven right... Again, Shyamalan is, in all likelihood, not attempting to make a culture war metaphor that sides with the right. His film could still be interpreted that way, however, should someone wish to."

In the end, Eric agrees to be sacrificed and is killed by Andrew. "It's at this junction where 'Knock At The Cabin' felt less like a movie and more like queer trauma porn," writes Stewart.

He cites Ryan Lattanzio of IndieWire as putting it particularly well: "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."

The casting of out actors playing queer characters in a major Hollywood thriller can be seen as some sort of progress, but their characters (like many LGBTQ+ characters in films and television) are bland stereotypes. Flashbacks in the film reveal how they've dealt with homophobia in their past. "Sadly, it also reveals them to be earnest to a fault and entirely sexless. The film deserves credit for casting two out gay actors in the roles, but you wonder if this couple has ever done more than hold hands," points out David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter.

At Slate, Sam Adams wonders why Shyamalan changed the book's ending — a complaint reflected in many reviews. In the book, Andrew mistakenly kills Wen, his daughter, while fighting with Leonard — an awful event, but not one that follows the guidelines the four intruders demand that would forestall the Apocalypse. In the novel Tremblay makes it seem that the home invasion is another instance of homophobia the couple have experienced, from family rejection to being gay bashed. "We've been through countless other storms. Maybe this one is different. Maybe it isn't," says one of them in the novel's final page. And they press on, leaving the cabin as a couple. Shyamalan's version attempts to counter the ugly brutality of one husband killing the other with sentimentality, as if they were the chosen couple because of the purity of their love and the sacrifice they make saves humanity. With its dead, sacrificial gay character, "A Knock at the Cabin" appears to echo the old Hollywood trope a gay character has to die at the end of the movie. But is it because God wants it so?

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].