‘Knock at the Cabin’ Doesn’t Bury its Gays

Knock at the Cabin

It’s becoming increasingly common for the overconsumption of film to cultivate the polite politics of film. Sure, films have always been a part of one’s identity—everyone knows the meme of the Fight Club poster film bro—but as film and politics have integrated horizontally, with one inextricably tied to the other, a new kind of media analysis has emerged, namely the idea that films are right and wrong, moral and immoral. Cinema has become a reflective surface, refracting an audience’s own innate politics through staging, blocking, lighting, and, yes, narrative. People can like the right kind of movies, and they can like the wrong kind.

Films that cultivate discomfort or moral ambiguity are regressively dismissed as immoral, tacit endorsements of the bad behavior on-screen. It’s the most boring kind of film criticism. Yes, some movies unspool distressing ethos and promulgate stereotypes and degenerative ideals with the fluidity of Garrett Brown’s Steadicam, but those aren’t the movies the internet discourses to death. It’s any movie that grapples with tough questions and unclear answers. In the queer horror community especially, it’s any movie that ostensibly “buries its gays.” This past weekend, Knock at the Cabin had the esteemed privilege of thrusting itself into some online muck where it didn’t really belong.

The Stakes

Closely following the pace of original author Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin opens with equal parts ingenious camera work and doomsday urgency. A group of cultists tethered to the others by shared visions of a world on the brink of collapse arrive at Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric’s (Jonathan Groff) remote cabin. They violently break in, tying Andrew and Eric up while their adopted daughter, Wen (a sensational Kristen Cui) watches on in horror. Led by the hulking yet tender Leonard (Dave Bautista), the four intruders are quick to announce their intentions—this family must willingly choose to sacrifice one of their own, or else the entire world will end.

Tremblay’s original novel dove deep into the ethos and nuanced characterizations of Eric, Andrew, and, yes, even Wen, interrogating their disparate reactions to their dire straits, their unique brand of terror in the face of four strangers asking for sacrifice. Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin, undoubtedly constrained by the innate limitations of the cinematic form (and likely mainstream, blockbuster expectations), eschews a lot of that internality. Snippets of Eric and Andrew’s life are revealed in flashbacks. Yet, Knock at the Cabin is principally grounded in the present. The movie rarely if ever shifts away from the claustrophobic confines of the cabin and the world-ending stakes at play.

Spoilers Ahead

As the intruders drop one by one and the cataclysm outside swells, Eric, Andrew, and the audience come to believe the intruders’ yarn. The apocalypse is real. After Leonard dies by suicide, the sky rains fire. Eric and Andrew debate fervently, and passionately, over who among them should be the one to sacrifice their life. Eric, a deeply spiritual person, makes the choice. If he dies and Andrew lives on, then their love will have saved the earth.

As Eric dies, the sky settles and the world slowly returns to normal. Shyamalan’s ending dovetails from the book. There, Wen is killed by an accidental gunshot, and the novel ends with Eric and Andrew choosing to live together, no matter what the future holds (The Cabin at the End of the World is considerably more ambiguous as to whether the apocalypse is really happening). Shyamalan sanitized the equivocation for something both more concrete and, resultantly, more contentious.

While favorably received both critically and commercially, Knock at the Cabin has been, in some circles, decried as yet another example of the longstanding “bury your gays” trope, the trend whereby queer characters are viewed as more expendable than their heterosexual counterpoints. In simple terms, if there is a queer character on the screen, they’re going to die, often early and brutally (see recently: It: Chapter 2).

Bury Your Gays

Yet, while there’s no denying Tremblay’s scripted ending is the better of the two, the “bury your gays” interpretation of Knock at the Cabin is disingenuous at best, actively harmful at worst. The aforementioned politics of polite cinema are, strangely, not terribly different from the kind of conservative censorship horror fans—especially queer horror fans—used to denounce in nothing less than absolute terms. Queer representation in cinema can be violent. It can be controversial. It can be difficult to dissect, forcing viewers to confront their own biases and worldviews, their own moral codes. Anything less results in a decontaminated depiction of model queerness that must always be beyond reproach. Hegemonically, the response cultivates an environment whereby demonizing queerness is formalized insofar as queer depictions that step out of line are themselves, from within that very community, deemed problematic.

Accordingly, queer persons cannot be loud. They cannot be victims. They cannot be anything beyond beacons of virtue inoculated from the terror and strife of conventional queer experiences. The dominant heterosexual culture maintains its dominant position, and it does so with the assistance of the same community it simultaneously seeks to oppress. That Knock at the Cabin could be read in lockstep with regressive conservative pundits is deeply troubling.

Keeping the Faith

Knock at the Cabin doesn’t endeavor to “bury its gays.” In fact, it’s difficult to even interpret the filmed ending as anything remotely hopeful. Shyamalan’s filmic language at no point suggests the right choice was made. Nor does Shyamalan’s visceral understanding of cinema and its form and structure. Instead, he challenges the audience to consider the worth of the world, the weight the most marginalized among us carry on their shoulders. Queer life today was built on queer sacrifice. Shyamalan’s filmography has been aggressively concerned with outsiders and empathy, awareness of the innate difficulty that comes with being different. It’s truthfully the defining characteristic of his work. Not silly dialogue. Not twist endings. Instead, it’s a profound empathy and capacity to care for those deemed others.

Throughout Knock at the Cabin, Shyamalan juxtaposes two distinct responses to queer adversity. Eric, whose parents are more involved, less prejudiced, has found solace in spirituality, with both Shyamalan and Tremblay exploiting those beliefs for sinister dramatic tension. Andrew, conversely, on account of absentee parents and a violent hate crime, has opted instead to navigate the world with brute strength. A brief scene of Andrew boxing post-attack is enough for the audience to fill in the blanks.

The Power of Love

Writ large, of course, both Eric and Andrew—and, by extension, Wen—grapple with whether a world that has rejected them is worth saving. Monuments, systems, and ecosystems of power in the United States have been built on the deaths of the marginalized. Andrew rightly contends that enough is enough. If the apocalypse is real, why should the onus again fall on those most vulnerable? What value does the world yield? It’s a fair question, and admittedly, one Tremblay lets simmer a while longer. Yet, Shyamalan is aggressively clear throughout that neither Andrew nor Eric are wrong. Neither response is more or less right.

Eric concedes to love. For as cruel and awful as the world is, it’s still the world where he met Andrew. The world where he adopted and raised Wen. The world where he loved and was loved. That, Eric pleads, is more important. There’s value in that. The recognition doesn’t dismiss Andrew’s righteous, justified anger. It doesn’t suddenly render the world free from homophobia. And, most importantly, it certainly doesn’t amount to “the right-wingers were right in torturing this queer family.” That does a disservice to what Shyamalan is doing here. It does a disservice to an entire throughline of subversive queerness in horror.

Queer Representation

Whether Knock at the Cabin or The Last of Us, it’s worth assessing the full breadth of queer representation. As a matter of taste, no one is obligated to like either, nor are they required to like sundry other pieces of transgressive queer media—the works of Eric LaRocca, Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt—but to dismiss them outright, to relegate them to the same broad schemas held widely by the right, is unfair. Knock at the Cabin isn’t perfect, but it isn’t anti-queer. It’s not cowardice or weakness to hope for something better. To forgive and recognize that, among the rubble and skies of fire, there’s still beauty and love worth preserving.



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