I’m not yet exhausted with M. Night Shyamalan’s schtick, but I am beyond exhausted with the MPAA. Shyamalan could continue making corny Twilight Zone episodes for the rest of his life, and I’ll always line up to witness his latest stunt, even if they more often land as fun novelties instead of great cinema. When I think about him, I smile. Meanwhile, I’m becoming increasingly angered by the continued existence & influence of the MPAA, our modern echo of retro Hays Code moralism. With Knock at the Cabin, my backburner delight with Shyamalan has inevitably clashed with my overboiling anger with the Motion Picture Association of America, an archaic institution with the power to determine who gets to see his work. Shyamalan’s latest film is not only an earnest goofball headscratcher from one of Hollywood’s foremost earnest goofballs; it’s also the latest glaring data point in the MPAA’s long history of institutional homophobia.
I was already grumbling about recent MPAA offenses before I sat down to watch Knock at the Cabin the theater. In just this past month, the original cut of the animatronic horror comedy M3GAN was noticeably defanged to meet the MPAA’s outdated standards for a PG-13 rating, a threshold far below what young teens can freely access on television & the internet at home. Even more egregiously, the MPAA neutered Brandon Cronenberg’s sci-fi freakout Infinity Pool by cursing it with an NC-17 rating, forcing the studio’s hand in distributing a tamer R-rated edit that national theater chains would be willing to program (even though those chains could freely, legally ignore MPAA rulings whenever they want). Listening to Cronenberg explain in interviews that the MPAA review & appeal process still involves guiding input from Catholic & Protestant priests in the year of Our Dark Lord 2023 was flabbergasting. Much like how Blockbuster & Wal-Mart’s self-censorship against distributing immoral, ungodly pop media has guided what the movie industry was willing to produce in the recent past, the MPAA’s relationship with larger theater chains is still directly, purposefully limiting what art I can legally consume as an adult. It’s corporate, Puritanical bullshit.
The frustrating thing is that M. Night Shyamalan is extremely accommodating to MPAA standards for safe, consumable art. I remember a behind-the-scenes DVD featurette for The Happening where Shyamalan declared himself to be “Mr. PG-13” and was showing squirmy anxiety over directing his first R-rated feature. In that film, Shyamalan went out of his way to earn the R, including an onscreen depiction of young children being blasted with a shotgun (which is exactly the shot he was setting up for in that “Mr. PG-13” interview). By contrast, Knock at the Cabin makes no overt efforts to earn its R rating “for violence and language.” If anything, its obscured, dulled-down violence and cautious “You piece of crap!” expletives play like the film has been preemptively compromised & edited down for a PG-13 rating, if not for a broadcast television premiere. Unlike his last one, Shyamalan’s latest widespread disaster film finds him working in “Mr. PG-13” mode, and I can’t help but assume that the only reason the priest-guided MPAA condemned it with an R-rating because its lead couple is gay. After all, the organization has a long history of rating sexless, violence-free gay content unsuitable for minors, including the even more innocuous titles Pride, Love is Strange, and 3 Generations (not to mention John Waters’s A Dirty Shame landing an NC-17 despite being relatively tame compared to the hetero Farrelly Brothers comedies Waters had indirectly inspired). Knock at the Cabin is just their latest target.
Beyond noting my personal, petty indignation, the reason the MPAA’s rating matters here is that it’s a real-world example of the fictional homophobia referenced in the text itself. The world at large is still violently hostile to the public existence of same-gender couples, which is what makes the selfless sacrifice asked of Knock at the Cabin‘s leads so politically loaded. While vacationing in a remote cabin with their adopted daughter, a married gay couple (Ben Aldridge & Jonathan Groff) are taken hostage by four doomsday zealots who met online (led by the imposing gentle giant Dave Bautista). The home invasion scenario quickly turns into religious parable, as the armed intruders explain that the hostages must make a Jellicle choice: sacrifice a member of their own family or watch the rest of the world suffer a Biblical apocalypse. The movie spends a lot of time debating the mechanics & validity of this supernatural scenario, approximating the exact middle ground between Richard Kelly’s sprawling Twilight Zone whatsit The Box and the Evangelical parable The Shack. Once those debates are settled, though, the real watercooler discussion questions posed to the audience get pretty thorny: Why should this tirelessly persecuted queer couple sacrifice themselves to save a world that spits in their general direction? How much grace & compassion do they owe to Q-Anon fascists, dive-bar gaybashers, and the institutional homophobes of the MPAA? Doesn’t the world, on some level, deserve to burn?
I am no priest, so I wasn’t part of the decision-making process for how, exactly, Knock at the Cabin “earned” its R rating. Maybe “Mr. PG-13” put his foot down on removing the one or two “F-bombs” that put the film over the cussing limit. Maybe the MPAA took a harsh stance because the film was largely self-financed—not pre-approved corporate product—and Shyamalan didn’t have the extra funding to fight their decision (another sin the organization often repeats). Maybe none of this matters at all. Shyamalan still got to screen his off-kilter camera angles, his off-putting cornball humor, and the stunning off-type performance from Bautista (whose hulking presence alone is a sight to behold, recalling the awesome image of Frankenstein’s monster gently, disastrously stooping down to relate to a little girl in 1931). The MPAA got to decide who’s allowed to see Shyamalan’s latest, but they didn’t stop him from making it, and they didn’t prevent it from earning the #1 box office slot on opening weekend, despite their efforts. Still, their harsh rating of the film reads like old-school, textbook homophobia to me, enhancing its themes in glaring, unintentional ways. I pray someone will Jellicle-choice them out of existence as soon as possible.