Let’s Talk About the Ending of Knock at the Cabin

Knock at the Cabin changes the ending of the novel it’s based on and suggests that instead of fighting fate, acquiescing is bravery — even grace. Photo: Phobymo/Universal Pictures

Spoilers follow for the film Knock at the Cabin and the novel The Cabin at the End of the World

Get the Robot Chicken “What a twist!” meme ready: M. Night Shyamalan has another film in theaters. After the horrors of The Visit, Split, and Old, Shyamalan is back with Knock at the Cabin, another genre offering based on Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World. And, in typical Shyamalan fashion, the director and his co-writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman have deviated from Tremblay’s original third act, crafting a different ending for this story that reifies the apocalyptic stakes, rearranges character deaths, and reframes the novel’s considerations of dignity and sacrifice.

Aside from tweaked character backstories and ages, Knock at the Cabin is fairly faithful to its inspiration until the ending. Married couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), are on vacation in a remote lakeside cabin farther away from the main road than they expected and outside of cell-phone range. The film begins with Wen, who is catching grasshoppers in a jar when a stranger approaches: a hulking, soft-spoken man who introduces himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista). He gently extends his hand to shake Wen’s, evoking Frankenstein’s monster when he gifts her a flower. His heart is broken, he tells Wen, because he and his friends — similarly outfitted in button-down shirts and carrying a collection of handmade, gnarly-looking weapons — have come to tell Wen and her fathers about a “tough” and “terrible” decision they’ll need to make.

Wen is unnerved, then almost hysterical, as she runs back into the cabin and tells Eric and Andrew about the visitors. The sounds of creaking porch boards tell the family they’re surrounded, and Shyamalan amps up the tension by centering the tools Leonard and his companions carry while excluding their faces. As Leonard, Adriane (Abby Quinn), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and Redmond (Rupert Grint) force their way in, Eric falls and hits his head, resulting in a serious concussion. Once the family is tied up, the four trespassers launch into their appeal. They’re “normal people, just like you,” but they’ve been selected to prevent the apocalypse. They’ve seen visions of this cabin and of the catastrophic events — including a flood and a plague — that can be stopped only if the family chooses to kill one of their own. If they refuse, then the home invaders will have to kill one another one by one, though their deaths can’t stop the end times. All of them are locked into a ritual from which they can’t escape, both literally (because the family is tied to chairs) and existentially (because the intruders truly believe in their task).

Eric and Andrew assume the members of the group are zealots and bigots driven by homophobia and a collective delusion. But as Knock at the Cabin creeps past its halfway point, and as the family’s refusal to cooperate results in Redmond’s death and they all watch a news report about earthquakes and tsunamis flooding the West Coast, the husbands begin to diverge. The religious Eric thinks he saw some kind of figure in the light shining into the cabin, but is it an effect of his brain injury or a divine entity proving that the foursome’s claims are genuine? Human-rights attorney Andrew was knocked unconscious by a bigot at a bar with Eric years ago and swore afterward to defend his husband and daughter any way he could. At the moment, he’s more concerned with getting to the gun he stashed in their car’s backseat. All of this is fairly in line with The Cabin at the End of the World, including the reveal that Redmond was Andrew’s attacker, a detail that shocks Leonard, Adriane, and Sabrina but convinces Andrew they’re being purposely targeted. But when it’s time for Adriane to become the next sacrificial lamb, Knock at the Cabin zigs instead of zags, changing the path of Tremblay’s story and suggesting that perhaps acquiescing to fate, instead of fighting it, is bravery — even grace.

The book’s concluding third goes like this: Andrew retrieves his gun from the car before Adriane is forced to die, and he kills Adriane in self-defense. As he and Leonard scuffle for the firearm, it goes off and kills Wen. Andrew and Eric are devastated, and when Leonard worries that Wen’s accidental death won’t stop the apocalypse (“I’m afraid she might not, um, might not count … The sacrifice was supposed to be a willing one. And it wasn’t”), Sabrina changes course. She decides to abandon their “capricious and cruel” calling and help Eric and Andrew leave the cabin, but some part of her is still tied to the prophecy. She kills Leonard, and after she guides Eric and Andrew — carrying Wen’s body — under a stormy “alien sky” to the pickup truck that Leonard’s group used to travel to the cabin, she’s compelled to kill herself as well.

In the final pages of the book, Eric decides to end his life to stop the apocalypse, Andrew persuades him not to, and the two join hands to walk into the abyss: “The storm swirls directly over us. But we’ve been through countless other storms. Maybe this one is different. Maybe it isn’t … We will lift Wen into our arms and we will carry her and we will remember her and we will love her as we will love ourselves. We will walk down the road even if it is flooded by raging waters or blocked by fallen trees or if greedy fissures open beneath our feet. And we will walk the perilous roads after that one. We will go on.” The Cabin at the End of the World’s idea of fate is a brutal one, and its idea of love is confidential: Andrew and Eric pick each other, and the loss of Wen ties them closer together. To separate even further would be unthinkable, and the novel deliberately contrasts them with Leonard and Sabrina, who “realize in this darkest hour of the darkest day they are alone, fundamentally alone.” The care Andrew and Eric have for each other makes the rest of the world irrelevant and unnecessary to save; while Sabrina describes existence as “only emptiness and lack and void,” that’s not the experience of the family she helped take hostage as long as they remain united. They will endure (a little bit like another recent queer love story).

Knock at the Cabin likewise valorizes perseverance but revises which characters we should respect for having that fortitude and what the content of that fortitude is. In being far more definitive than the novel about the apocalyptic threat, Shyamalan’s work is more sympathetic to the captors and more willing to position their pursuit of this mission as a noble act. They second-guess themselves less, and their agonized expressions are often captured in closeups to convey the toll this is taking on them. The film also reorders their ends so that Adriane willingly dies, Sabrina is shot and killed by Andrew while trying to defend Leonard, and Leonard — a second-grade teacher and youth-basketball coach in his previous life before the visions started — gives a Roy Batty–like speech, full of pathos and wistfulness, about the importance of guiding children with truth and honesty before he slashes his own throat. Leonard’s last words are especially meaningful because Wen doesn’t die in the film, and her survival adds another layer of weight to Eric and Andrew’s ensuing discussion about what to do about the end of the world.

As gay men, what do they owe a society whose members mistreat and hate them — like Redmond (who served time in prison for attacking Andrew), Andrew’s parents (whom we see in a flashback radiating resentment and disappointment as they visit their son and Eric), or the adoption officials whom the couple had to lie to about their relationship so they could adopt Wen? Should Eric and Andrew believe in a higher power and treat this test as an opportunity to forgive those who have wronged them? Are they being forced into that forgiveness, and is it acquiescence or strength? Setting aside a specifically religious perspective, what would humanism have them do? Can people grow and progress, and at what point do the lives of many outweigh the few? What power do individuals have against the tide of climate change and a pandemic or the desensitization of the technologically advanced world (questions Shyamalan also weighed in The Happening and The Village, respectively), and is it cynical or precautionary to opt out of taking action? What do they owe Wen, and what kind of world do they want her to grow up in? What is the best way for Eric and Andrew to honor their promise to take care of her: Is it better for one of them to depart now on their own terms so that the other experiences years of happiness with their daughter? Or should they turn their backs on the world and doom themselves to eternal loneliness for the sake of staying together? Are people capable of great acts of love even at the expense of their own lives, and what bravery does that require?

Groff and Aldridge are wonderfully in sync as they desperately turn over these questions and their oppositional responses, and without the grief of Wen’s death, the movie can concern itself with the promise and potential of life. As a genre, horror is of course about our animalistic, fight-or-flight modes of survival when our backs are against the wall, but Knock at the Cabin is also deeply interested in the particular kind of agency born out of having a choice. Andrew may push back against the pressure of a decision by insisting, “We’re nothing special,” but Knock at the Cabin rejects that self-diminishment. Every person in this film has value and purpose, and when Eric persuades Andrew to kill him, it’s an olive branch extended to a world on fire. Where The Cabin at the End of the World can be read as a suggestion that Eric and Andrew’s refusal to engage with an apocalyptic bargain is justifiable self-preservation, Knock at the Cabin makes the love shared by their family so resilient, so unwavering, and so uncontainable that it becomes absolution. It’s not Shyamalan’s wildest twist, but it might be his most openhearted one.

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Let’s Talk About the Ending of Knock at the Cabin