Irony, according to the late author David Foster Wallace, tyrannizes us. While Wallace himself may have found the most drastic way to break free from our post-modernist prison, the world he left behind is still crying out to be reconstructed.
By Noah Gittell
Irony, according to the late author David Foster Wallace, tyrannizes us. While Wallace himself may have found the most drastic way to break free from our post-modernist prison, the world he left behind is still crying out to be reconstructed. Wallace felt the reason pervasive cultural irony was so unsatisfying was because irony breaks down our societal constructs but knows nothing about building them back up. Had he lived to see “Cabin in the Woods”, a meta-horror movie that most critics are lavishing praise upon for its fresh take on the genre, he would have found an irony-drenched film that expertly breaks down its genre but never figures out what to do with the pieces.
The twists and turns of “Cabin in the Woods” create a treacherous task for a critic. Give too much away, and you spoil the fun. Hold too much back, and you give no one a good reason to see it. Here’s what I can say: the plot centers on five teenagers who travel to the country for a weekend of partying in an isolated cabin. The characters are, by design, horror-movie archetypes: the virgin, the jock, the scholar, etc. But as soon as the horror starts, we go behind-the-scenes and learn a new reality: these characters are puppets in some sort of mysterious corporate or government game that will inevitably end in their deaths. In this way, the movie follows typical horror movie conventions and also turns them on their head. It’s a nifty trick that has been done before: “Scream” deconstructed the flailing genre in the 1990s, but this movie probes the genre to new depths.
First-rate character actors Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins steal their scenes as the technical experts who keep watch on the teenagers. As the kids begin to perish in gruesome ways, Whitford and Jenkins look on with bemusement. Their detachment from the violence, in fact, mirrors our own. In most horror movies, the terror comes from a sense of mystery as to the true nature of the threat. But because we see the people pulling the strings, “Cabin in the Woods” lacks a single truly terrifying moment. Most of the time, we act as Whitford and Jenkins do: interested, amused, but never really involved.
The true nature of their work is not revealed until the final frames, and I won’t reveal it here, but it is hard not to see similarities to “The Hunger Games”. Much like in that better film, “Cabin in the Woods” portrays the younger generation as pawns in a game rigged by adults. They are also caught in the grip of that pervasive irony, never knowing if their personalities are real or if they’re just playing a stereotype they’ve seen before in the movies. The futility of their situation, which we are let it in on from the beginning, is a common horror-movie convention: usually only one survives. But here their futility takes on a new dimension: for reasons that I just can’t go into, their death is not just a sad inevitability – it is a tragic necessity.
“Cabin in the Woods” is a movie for our specific time and place — the age of irony — and that alone makes it worthy of viewing and consideration. Still, it suffers from the same flaw as all satirical works of art. They are easy to like and ripe for discussion but extremely difficult to care about. In the end, that is why we go to movies.
The lights go down, and we want to lose ourselves in the story, the characters, the feelings. “Cabin in the Woods” might be perfect for a viewing at home followed by a discussion over drinks and dinner. But don’t expect to be moved, and don’t be surprised if your night ends, as Wallace would have predicted, with you feeling your world has gotten a little smaller. The film shows that irony will be, at least in the figurative sense, the death of us all.
My rating: Put it on your queue