This article contains spoilers for the movie Knock at the Cabin and the novel it’s based on, The Cabin at the End of the World.
There’s no living director, and perhaps no director in history, more identified with the plot twist than M. Night Shyamalan. What Spielberg is to wide-eyed wonder, what Kubrick is to the stare, Shyamalan is to the third-act rug-pull, the sudden reversal that throws everything that’s gone before into a stark and shocking new light.
But in Knock at the Cabin, the twist is that there’s no twist. It’s not the first time he’s made a movie without a last-minute switcheroo—he’s a little less wedded to the concept than some of his detractors might claim—but it’s the movie in which you most fervently hope, even pray, for one. Like the Paul Tremblay novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, on which it is based, Knock proceeds from a fiendishly disturbing premise. Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) are vacationing at a remote house in the woods with their 7-year-old daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), when they’re visited by a group of four strangers led by the hulking but soft-spoken Leonard (Dave Bautista). Leonard informs them that the world is about to end in a matter of hours, and there’s only one thing that can prevent every soul on earth from perishing: One member of this family of three has to voluntarily kill one of the others.
There’s no explanation of why this particular sacrifice has been demanded by god—if that’s even the right name for whatever force has put the visions of what’s coming and how to stop it in the four strangers’ heads—only a vague certainty that this has happened before, that once in every undetermined number of years, a family has been faced with this sacrifice—and, given that the world still exists, they must have made their choice. And even for the vengeful god of the Old Testament, it seems like a bit much to demand that mortal family to murder one of their own. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but he didn’t actually let him go through with it.
Nonetheless, as Knock at the Cabin goes on, you’re gripped by the sick certainty that there’s only one way for this story to end. You know from the moment that the strangers show up bearing clunky but vicious-looking weapons—“tools,” as Leonard insists, with gnarled pieces of metal protruding from the ends of wooden staffs—that those weapons will have to be used. And once the first of the strangers, Redmond (Rupert Grint), is sacrificed by the rest of the group, you know the others will have to go the same way. Every time Andrew and Eric resist the imperative to choose, one of the four horsemen has to die, and then Leonard will turn on the television, the cabin’s only connection to the outside world, to show that the prophecy is coming true. First floods, then plague, the sky falling “like pieces of glass,” and then, at last, eternal darkness.
Tremblay’s novel is substantially more chaotic. But Shyamalan’s movie, on which he shares screenplay credit with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, is orderly to a fault. The horsemen not only die as prophesized but in the order that’s prescribed. They might as well be lined up before a firing squad. And that goes for Andrew and Eric as well. Throughout the movie, Leonard underlines the notion of choice. Their sacrifice will only work if it’s an act of will. They can’t kill themselves, or kill another by accident—they must decide, and follow through. But by the end of the movie, that choice hardly seems like one at all. No matter how long the two of them try to deny what’s happening, it becomes clear that, to quote 28 Days Later, the end is extremely fucking nigh. Andrew, the couple’s designated skeptic, tries to come up with some way that this could all be a hoax: Maybe the group timed their entry to coincide with news reports of a tsunami hitting the Pacific coast, and perhaps the second horseman’s death was timed to sync up with a pre-recorded broadcast on a viral outbreak. But his rationalizations don’t even convince his partner, let alone the audience. If they’re meant to sow genuine ambiguity, they don’t. All we see is a man struggling to come to terms with what we already know is true.
Because we know it’s true, and because there’s nothing in the dialogue that suggests there’s any way to detour around Armageddon, eventually all we’re waiting to find out is whether Andrew will kill Eric, or the other way around. (Wen is clearly off the table. M. Night Shyamalan’s kids see dead people, but they don’t become them.) Sure, there’s technically an out. If they don’t do the deed, Andrew and Eric and Wen will survive, but they’ll be the only ones, left to wander the lifeless, smoking ruin of earth, “permanently and cosmically alone,” knowing that they having stood by and let billions die. It’s a Hobson’s choice, a cruel parody of agency, one that the movie tries to disguise by burying it under a truckload of sentimentality. In one flashback to happier, more pre-apocalyptic times, we see the family of three singing along in their car to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes,” and even then, its unbridled peppiness feels like a bit of a sick joke. It’s moreso when Shyamalan brings it back in the movie’s final scene. Eric, who has gradually made peace with the demands the strangers have brought to their door, tells Andrew he should be the one to go, because he’ll die believing he saved his partner and their daughter from the worst fate imaginable. Andrew obliges him, and he and Wen drive off alone, leaving five corpses behind them. She reaches to turn on the radio, and it’s “Boogie Shoes” again, blaring through a sky blackened by the still-smoldering fires of hell. Andrew leaps to turn it off, then pauses a second and turns it back on, then off, and finally on. Sure, untold millions are dead and he just shot the man they both loved, but we’ll always remember the good times.
That’s not how The Cabin at the End of the World ends, and although some of the movie’s changes were inevitable and the book is hardly some sacrosanct masterwork, the disruption of the story’s final act makes the movie feel incoherent at best. In the book, after Andrew retrieves his gun from the car, he and Leonard struggle with it, and the pistol goes off and kills Wen. The grief is horrible, and it’s deepened by the confirmation from the television that even this loss is not enough: The apocalypse has moved to its next phase, and so Leonard is the next to die. The fourth horseman kills herself, and Andrew and Eric are left with the same choice as in the film: Either one kills the other or the other way around. But in the book, they reject it. “Focus on this,” Andrew says, “They expect us to believe that Wen’s death isn’t a good-enough sacrifice for their god. So you know what? Fuck them and their god. Fuck them all.” If these are the rules the world runs by, maybe the world isn’t worth saving. And so they wait to see what happens next, vowing to face whatever it is as one.
I’m not exactly rooting for the onscreen death of a 7-year-old, and I don’t think the novel successfully reckons with it either—a short while after accidentally causing his daughter’s death, Andrew, whose knee has been injured in the fighting, makes a crack about how he’s “rebooting” his leg. But omitting it unsettles the movie, which up to that point has followed the novel nearly beat for beat. Instead of pushing back against their fate, Andrew and Eric succumb to it. And there’s something a tad grotesque about how the movie coaxes us to go along. Shyamalan soft-pedals the novel’s violence across the board. Where Tremblay lovingly describes the shape of the strangers’ shattered skulls after they’re pounded to pulp, the movie keeps the killing blows offscreen. But it’s especially genteel with Eric’s death, cutting to an overhead shot of the cabin as a gunshot echoes through the woods. It’s the way movies usually deal with the death of a beloved pet—I thought immediately of Old Yeller—not a major protagonist. (To be fair, the novel does effectively cut around Wen’s death, narrating it from her perspective so that when she’s shot the chapter simply ends, but it also makes a point of underlining how quickly her corpse starts attracting flies.)
Leonard theorizes that that Andrew and Eric’s family has been selected to make the choice for all of humanity because of how “pure” their love for one another is. In the novel, they’re a couple like any other, but for Shyamalan, they’re exceptional. Wen tells Leonard she’s the only child of gay parents in her entire class, although it strains credulity to think a well-off couple like Andrew and Eric would ever send their child to a school where that was the case, and she mentions that although people often tell her how great it is that she has two dads, it often sounds like they mean the opposite.
In both versions of the story, it’s suggested that Redmond, the first horseman to die, is the same man who violently attacked Eric in a bar many years earlier after calling him an anti-gay slur. But in the book, that coincidence is part of what prompts them to resist. In a jointly narrated passage on the final page, Andrew and Eric compare the gathering of apocalyptic clouds to everything they’ve weathered in their previous lives: “We’ve been through countless other storms. Maybe this one is different. Maybe it isn’t.” They’ve settled into a monogamous relationship, adopted a child, done everything the world has told them they have to do in order to win acceptance, and god still sends a homophobic bigot to tell them to kill themselves? No thanks.
But in the movie, Andrew and Eric are a perfect couple, and the prize for that perfection is death. They’re still proving they’re better than the bigots, even though the bigots will never know who saved them. In a line taken from the book, Leonard tries to reassure Andrew and Eric by telling them that the invaders are “normal people like you”—a canny inversion of the idea that normalcy is something gay couples have to work towards rather than serving as its benchmark. But the movie treats them as people with something to prove, a standard to live up to. Every other family that’s been faced with this choice has done what they had to do. Why can’t you?
Although Shyamalan identifies as agnostic, his movies are steeped in Christian themes—his second movie, Wide Awake, stars Rosie O’Donnell as a nun, and he’s referred to himself as “the only Hindu in Catholic school.” But Knock at the Cabin’s gloss on that tradition is so superficial it verges on nonsensical. He takes the four horseman from the book of Revelations, but instead of war, famine, conquest, and death, his are malice, nurturing, healing, and guidance. Leonard references humanity being judged for its sins, but there’s no sense of what those sins are, nor why forcing a happy couple to commit murder would expiate them. A god that would demand such a sacrifice can only be monstrous, but by the end, the movie gives up on even being outraged. The world is a terrible place, but them’s the breaks. Perhaps that’s because the one who’s really demanding the sacrifice is Shyamalan himself.