Major spoilers ahead for Knock at the Cabin!
M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller, Knock at the Cabin, was the number-one movie in the country this weekend. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film earned $14.2 million and bumped Avatar: The Way of Water to number three (with a bit of help from 80 for Brady, which claimed the no. 2 spot).
The film, adapted by Shyamalan (with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman) from Paul Tremblay’s 2019 novel The Cabin at the End of the World, centers on a gay couple (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) who are taken hostage along with their nearly-eight-year-old daughter by a quartet of strangers who present them with an impossible choice: One of them must willingly sacrifice themself to prevent the apocalypse.
So far this week, I’ve seen at least a couple of headlines and social media posts cheering the fact that a film about LGBTQ+ characters topped the weekend box office. But is this particular “queer narrative”—as one post characterized it—really the one we want America to embrace? Personally, I’m ambivalent.
My own thoughts about Knock at the Cabin have evolved more-or-less along these lines: I was intrigued by the trailer when I first saw it. I was excited to read the novel on which it was based. I liked the movie well enough after seeing it. I liked it less after finishing the novel and thinking about the changes Shyamalan (in his wisdom) seemed to think he needed to make to the plot. I’m…slightly frustrated by this particular narrative in which Knock at the Cabin is the “queer narrative” that America is ready to embrace at the box office.
I mean, I’m not sure if that is the narrative, but it is a narrative. “It’s remarkable that a film with two married male protagonists (with a child) played by gay actors…did so well and was so embraced by young male audiences,” wrote The Advocate’s Neal Broverman. “Knock at the Cabin certainly changes the narrative of gay-centered films failing at the box office, like the very high-profile Bros did last summer.”
Remarkable is an interesting choice of words in this instance. What Broverman describes is remarkable, in the sense that it’s worth remarking upon. Noteworthy might have been a better choice because the more I think about Shyamalan’s film and what it’s doing, the less inclined I am to see its success with a mostly male audience between the ages of 18–24 as a highwater mark for LGBTQ+ representation in Hollywood.
For starters, horror movies still generally draw disproportionately large audiences to theaters. Horror is one of the few genres that seems to be immune to the tectonic shifts in the way people watch movies brought on by both streaming and the pandemic. And despite some mid-career blunders (Lady in the Water, The Happening), Shyamalan still commands a devoted fandom. As THR notes, his last film, 2021’s Old, earned $17 million domestically in its opening weekend, while 2018’s Glass and 2016’s Split both opened to $40 million. So, presumably, Knock at the Cabin benefits from a built-in audience, which may be willing to overlook or tolerate or just doesn’t care about the presence of some gays in a film that promises some scares and twists.
The point is, I think it’s a mistake to read too much into the film’s box office numbers. What concerns me more is the particular story Shyamalan has chosen to tell about a gay couple.
I’ve written elsewhere and still think that Knock at the Cabin deserves credit for acknowledging the specificity of Aldridge and Groff’s characters’ experiences of the world as out gay men. The four intruders insist that they aren’t targeting Eric (Groff) and Andrew (Aldridge) because they are gay; that they didn’t even know the family that their apocalyptic visions were leading them to was a same-sex parented family. They just happen to be gay.
Except that, in terms of the story we see play out, they don’t just happen to be gay. Their pasts — the garden variety heterosexism and the violent homophobia they’ve experienced — impact the way they both, and particularly Andrew, react to and interpret the extreme circumstances they find themselves in. The film does a serviceable job of honoring that and showing it to us, as does the novel on which it is based. Shyamalan even acknowledges, glancingly, via a single line from Aldridge, the perversity of an LGBTQ+ couple being asked to sacrifice a member of the family and the happiness they’ve gone through so much to build in order to save a world that still remains largely hostile to LGBTQ+ people.
But Shyamalan alters Tremblay’s story about halfway through. (And here is where I’m going to mercilessly spoil both the book and the film; you’ve been warned.) Whereas in the novel it is never clear whether the four intruders are actually harbingers of the apocalypse or just fanatics suffering from a shared delusion, the film leans into the idea that their visions and prophecies are accurate. As in the book, Eric, suffering from a major head injury and spurred by his own religious faith, begins to believe them. But while Tremblay ends his novel with Andrew and Eric choosing to stay alive, to not sacrifice themselves or their love to prevent a disaster they’re not even sure is really going to happen, in Shyamalan’s version Eric chooses to die.
It’s the tired old Bury Your Gays trope and it was a choice Shyamalan made in his adaptation: Instead of allowing his gay characters to survive, to solider on together, to choose hope in the face of despair, he decided that one of them needed to die.
I’m not saying that Knock at the Cabin’s success at the box office is because of this. I’m not even sure that many of the 18–24-year-old men who made up the film’s audience on opening weekend will recognize it. I simply think it’s important to think about the film in these terms as we talk about it as an example of a “queer narrative” that a comparatively wide audience is going to see. I’m sure we’re all sick to death of the narrative around Bros’ failure at the box office, but I can’t help but think about that film in this context. It seems America — or at the very least Hollywood— still loves seeing gays suffering more than it does watching us live, laugh, fall in love, and survive.