I guess I'm a little bit more forgiving of a film because I actually PAY to see them with my own money. If it's somewhat entertaining, I tend to give it a C. Plus I usually avoid films I know I'm probably going to hate. If I give anything below a C to a movie I paid to see, it has to be really bad. One example would be 10,000 B.C..
I'm less forgiving.
The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
It’s just as difficult to talk about The Cabin in the Woods without giving away the plot twist as it is to talk about Drew Goddard as much as Joss Whedon. Goddard is an incredibly successful television writer who moved onto features, writing Cloverfield, co-writing and directing this excellent curio. Once we see some of the very high-profile assignments he has underway perhaps it will be easier to do so, but there is so much in this film that is so quintessentially Whedon, a sensibility that flourished in the apple-cheeked WB of yesteryear.
SPOILERS AHEAD, SO SAYS THE HARBINGER
Every here on the level? Good.
There is a big difference between clever and funny. Clever is all about the concept and funny is about the moments. Clever often fails to invoke laughter because it can easily get tangled up in smug. One of Joss Whedon’s greatest skills is walking that tightrope between clever and funny. Fans of Buffy know that the vampire attacks serve more often as throwaway gags than act breaks in any given episode. Joss Whedon understands (just as Charlie Kaufman and those PIXAR nerds do) that clever is only funny when something is happening on a human scale. And first and foremost, Joss Whedon is a generous humanist interested in using concept to explore behavior. Generous to the point where every stock character is given a through-line or an inner-life regardless of whether or not it is necessary. Take the very subtle yearning glances that Amy Acker’s operative gives Brian White’s stoic guard, and the way that she back-peddles on the morality of this company’s actions when she thinks he might disapprove. I suppose it demonstrates the banality of evil, but mostly it’s just a wonderful bit of flavor to a functionary character.
The Cabin in the Woods has one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” notions that is just infuriating. It’s so damn clever. There is a corporation that has a vested interest in staging the terrifying events of a horror to satiate the Ancient Gods who demand sacrifice. The five archetypes must be done away with in a specific order or else the Ancient Gods will rise again and destroy this world – a world where presumably horror movies don’t exist on the screen, and only in life. Nobody seems to mention horror movies. Stoner Marty (Fran Kranz) leaps towards a more universal Puppets vs. Puppeteer revelation, as he notices that his friends are all acting drastically out of character in this cabin. Jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth, years before Thor) isn’t usually this drunk and boorish. Being in a cabin just turns every jock into an asshole. Why? Because pheromones are being pumped into his room by the company to elicit a specific reaction. And why would anybody split up to cover more ground when they’re clearly safer in one group? Nothing in the film is more zombie-like than the manner in which Hemsworth utters “Wait. Let’s split up. We’ll cover more ground.”
We shift back and forth from this group of five teens to the Company – I don’t recall getting a name of it, so I’ll just refer to it as the Company – and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) as they mastermind every horror movie cliché from a distance, just as they do around the world. And they’re doing a terrible job worldwide. One glorious throwaway joke features an ending to a J-Horror movie that wouldn’t be out of place in Sailor Moon. Jenkins and especially Whitford are hilarious together, and visibly earnest in their duties. We learn as the film goes along that, yes, their actions do stay off global destruction. But at what cost? In the film’s most inspired sequence, Kristen Connelly’s Dana is at her endgame. It doesn’t matter if the virginal heroine dies in a horror movie, so long as she suffers. The Company celebrates with libations, because they are literally at the point where it does not matter if a human lives or dies. Their task is complete. They schmooze indifferent to Dana’s plight, as she is tossed around and beaten by a zombie on giant, wall-like screens behind them.
It’s easy to see where Goddard and Whedon are going with this. Whenever we watch a horror film, the filmmakers are the Company and we are the Ancient Gods. We demand suffering for our satisfaction. That’s not a new point. Until The Cabin in the Woods builds to an incredibly satisfying third act, I found it incredibly clever and funny, but I was always asking myself where this film is going. If it was just about being clever. If it was just going to indict the audience along with every other audience and earn my brownie points for exploiting the concept fully. There’s really no way to root against anybody in this film. Whitford and Jenkins are too intriguing, the carrot of why they do what they do is dangled so enticingly before us that we can’t hate them. This is especially true because The Cabin in the Woods is clearly a satire. And you can’t root against the Teenagers, all of whom are very endearing plays from the genre handbook.
So what’s it all about?
The Cabin in the Woods builds to a conclusion where it all comes down to sacrifice. Two friends given the choice of throwing their lives away to prevent the end of the world, possibly forced to kill each other. It’s a line in the sand that one of them won’t cross, saying quite plainly that if this world demands that a friend kill a friend for this world to keep turning, then this world isn’t worth saving. It comes from a throwaway line earlier inspired from a routine toke session, but this character has the courage to go through with it. It’s a beautifully gutsy sentiment that took me by surprise. After eighty minutes of clever, possibly hollow entertainment, I was pretty moved. I don’t know why I should be surprised. Joss Whedon doesn’t just walk a tightrope between the clever and the funny. It’s also between the epic and human scales. The Cabin in the Woods gets pretty epic, but it stays very human.
Goddard deserves all the credit in the world for coming up with this concept and for pulling it off. He has helmed what is likely to be one of the most enjoyable pieces of entertainment this year. That it’s likely to be remembered as the first of the three Whedon Joints we’re to receive this year marks it as the kind of pyrrhic victory where in my opinion he can go cry on a bag of money and future projects if he must.