“Part of humanity has been judged.”
So declares the home invader Leonard after his three captives—husbands Andrew and Eric, along with their young daughter Wen—refuse his obscene message. Together with three associates, Leonard has interrupted their vacation to tell the trio that only they can forestall the end of the world by having one member of the family sacrifice another.
When Andrew and Eric refuse, Leonard and his associates follow the directions that have been given to them in the apocalyptic visions that drove them to the cabin. One of the quartet pulls a white mask over their head and kneels before the family. After two others walk back and forth in a strange ritual, Leonard takes a rusty, ragged weapon in his hands and stabs it into his compatriot’s head. The corpse crumples to the floor. Eric tells Wen to bury her face against his chest. Andrew spits with rage, tearing his wrists against the ropes that bind him. Leonard, meanwhile, walks resolutely to the television and turns it on. There, via breaking news reports, the family learns what their refusal has wrought: not just the death of Leonard’s associate, but also a series of tsunamis that sweep away thousands of innocent lives. To Leonard, the choice is horrible, but straightforward: force the terrified family to sacrifice one of their own or doom the rest of humanity.
Those are the stakes of Knock at the Cabin, the latest thriller from M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Glass, Old). Adapted from the Paul Tremblay novel The Cabin at the End of the World, Knock at the Cabin puts Andrew (Ben Aldridge), Eric (Jonathan Groff), and Wen (Kristen Cui) in an impossible position. Surprisingly, that difficulty is not lost on Leonard (Dave Bautista) and his four associates (Rupert Grint, Abby Quinn, and Nikki Amuka-Bird). Even as they fight Andrew and Eric, eventually tying them to chairs, the quartet empathizes with the family who receives their message.
Playing against the hulks he portrayed as a WWE wrestler or in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Bautista brings a heretofore unseen gentility to Leonard. A 2nd-grade teacher and part-time bouncer, Leonard, like his compatriots, has been tormented by visions of global suffering. Bautista reveals the regret that crushes Leonard, lowering his voice to a whisper and folding his massive hands in front of him—showing that he would willingly sacrifice himself before placing such a burden on Andrew and Eric. But that’s not what the prophecy demands.
Although the movie doesn’t ascribe the prophecy to any specific religion, Christian viewers can’t help but wince a bit at the biblical parallels. With his language about judgment and apocalypse, Leonard recalls biblical prophets like the weeping, raging Jeremiah or the suffering Stephen. Often, such biblical terminology is used to condemn others unfairly or shore up political power. But the prophets in scripture were motivated by something else: God's desire to be in right relationship with us, to turn us from our self-destructive ways and toward a life of flourishing.
To be sure, judgment and sacrifice play major roles in the Bible. Throughout the Old Testament, God chose people such as Nathan, Elijah, and Isaiah to urge the people of Israel back to God’s covenant and away from false gods that peddled earthly praise and power, often at the expense of the weak and lowly. In the New Testament, John the Baptist, the apostles, and Jesus himself spoke against both the Roman empire and against the sin in individual hearts. And then, when we still failed to keep our covenant with God, Christ took our place on the cross. In every case, the message is the same: God loves us, no matter what the cost.
The prophets in scripture were motivated by God's desire to be in right relationship with us.
It can be tempting to replicate the judgmental language of the prophets. Surely I cannot be the only Christian who has fantasized about unleashing holy fury at some sinner of my choosing, condemning them and outlining their shortcomings. However, that approach prioritizes self-righteousness and forgets God’s unending love for humanity. When Isaiah promised that Babylon would be “overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah” or when Stephen calls the Sanhedrin “stiff-necked people,” they certainly pronounced God’s judgment. But that judgment stems from God’s love for people. It rejects the unfulfilling lives demanded by earthly systems and instead offers the opportunity to live the life that God designed for us, life to the full.
Bautista’s quiet performance captures the love for humanity that drives biblical prophecy. When he first arrives, Leonard takes time to play with Wen, speaking to her on her level. Even after the quartet breaks into the cabin and binds the family, they introduce themselves and share something from their backgrounds. When Andrew scoffs at the practice, Leonard explains the importance of seeing each other as humans.
The movie's visual language underscores that humanity. Shyamalan often shoots the characters’ faces in extreme close-up and shallow focus, emphasizing the pain creasing Leonard’s eyebrows, the desperation in Andrew’s eyes, and the sorrow bending the corners of Eric’s mouth.
Through these elements, Knock at the Cabin underscores an imperative and too often forgotten part of the Christian walk. We’re not called to judge one another, to stand above humanity as if we alone are the voice of God. Rather, we’re called to emulate Christ and stand with our fellow humans, to act from love and compassion for the imago dei we all carry.
Theologian Dorothee Soelle captures this idea when she describes the work of "living sacrifices" in the world. Soelle insists that “the fate of the world” is “in our hands.” Following the model set by Christ and the assurance of life over death made possible by his resurrection, Christians become “a community of resisters” who can “prevent the extermination of humankind and the rest of creation." As Christians, we follow and trust in the God "who created the universe, including our planet, and who delivered us from slavery," who is "the same God who raises the dead to new life, so that we who were dead and without hope might become resisters and lovers of life."
For all of its nasty imagery and rampant death, Knock at the Cabin fundamentally and wildly loves life. When Leonard praises Eric and Andrew for the good work they’ve done raising Wen, or when he shares a picture of the basketball team he coaches, it’s clear that he wants nothing more than for people to not only survive, but thrive. In these moments, the movie provides a model for every would-be prophet who looks toward the unveiling of the world. Where we say "part of humanity has been judged," God says, "All of humanity is loved."