In Knock at the Cabin, based on the Paul Tremblay novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, has a 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.
But you’re also bored by the lack of tension. The film’s destiny seems so prescribed, and there’s no question as to whether these four intruders are to be believed. (They are.) Knock at the Cabin’s gloss on the Christian tradition is so superficial it verges on nonsensical. Tremblay’s novel is substantially more chaotic. But M. Night 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. 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.
Knock at the Cabin comes close to drawing a line connecting its four prophets – who are, of course, eventually revealed as stand-ins for the Four Horsemen – to the myriad conspiracy theorists and internet-zealots currently making so much noise in our world. 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. Material this serious shouldn’t ask us to stifle a yawn.