Joss Whedon‘s latest film, The Cabin in the Woods, directed by and co-written with Drew Goddard is perhaps his most atheistic production to date. Where god(s) and religoin play key roles in other of his works, here he is advocating the destruction of theology…or at least a particular kind.
Five friends, beauty Jules (Anna Hutchinson), athlete Curt (Chris Hemsworth), scholar Holden (Jesse Williams), nerd Marty (Fran Kranz), and “virgin” Dana (Kristen Connolly), go to Curt’s cousin’s cabin in the woods for a drunken weekend. Little do they know, although a constantly-stoned Marty has his suspicions, that all is not as it seems. In fact, they are part of a controlled sacrificial rite run, ideally, by a group of engineers, lead here by Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford). There are other similar rituals taking place around the world. The “lambs” are offerings to “the old gods,” who will destroy the world unless an offering of five such archetypes is made every year.
Cabin in the Woods is an intelligent and witty thriller/horror film that has all the jump in your seat moments and blood and gore you could hope for…which is part of the point…and the problem. As it is a scathing commentary on a particular type of theology, it is also an entertainingly self-aware reflection on contemporary pop culture, society’s fascination with it, and how it’s all tied up with economics, religion, and mythology. It’s a well-paced and directed film with fine performances. Although I’d imagine that many viewers will be put off by (as they should?) the lengthy blood-bath during the last third of the film. Still, there are some laugh-out-loud lines, particularly Bradley Whitford’s character reflecting on a failed Japanese sacrifice and the victorious children singing, “What a friend we have in Shinto,” or Marty, recognizing what might be going on after they get to the cabin, “I’m drawing a line in the f*&^#$g sand. Do not read the Latin!”
From a theological perspective, even though I doubt it’s intentional, Whedon and Goddard are calling into question a substitutionary atonement theory that has long been a defining characteristic of more conservative expressions of Christianity and that has, more recently, become a point of contention for more progressive Christian believers. Most recently, Tony Jones has been calling for a “better atonement.” In the film, the “director” of the sacrificial system tells Marty, “You can either die for them, or you can die with them.” He dismisses these two simplistic choices, and he and Dana walk a more truly sacrificial way…I’ll let you find out for yourself how. What kind of gods demand such a sacrifice and what type of believers are they who so readily give it? Regarding the believer, The Cabin in the Woods presents a brief, but interesting, dichotomy between the engineers like Sitterson and Hadley who gamble on how their subjects will die and Mordecai (Tim De Zarn), a player in the rite who is more fanatical about his beliefs. Where the former understand it to be a business, the latter takes it seriously…as did, apparently, the one-time owners of the cabin.
Closely paralleling this theological critique, is Whedon and Goddard’s analysis of our contemporary popular culture and our obsession with the violence in it. The tropes of the horror genre have been encoded in our own collective consciousness (whether we know it or not), much like more traditional religious myths. Like the engineers in The Cabin in the Woods, we simultaneously create and are entertained by this violent mythology. We have gotten used to the violence…we expect it. But, as Truman (Brian White)…catch the name?…asks, “Should [we]?” For all it’s truth telling, and brilliant as it is, the problem with The Cabin in the Woods is that it’s critique of our obsession with and immunity to the horrors of the genre…and even a central component of so many people’s theology…is couched in a film that is a paragon of violence and horror. Of course, when Hadley says, “We have to keep the customers satisfied,” he’s talking about both the old gods in the film and the viewers in the theaters.
An unfortunately reality of The Cabin in the Woods is that, if you look close enough, it all hits a bit too close to home. We (our wider culture) are sacrificing way more than five youths to appease a host of gods on a daily basis. Who are they…the sacrificial lambs and the gods to which we sacrifice them? How do we sacrifice them? For what? These are a handful of tough questions, the answers to which, like the scenes of sacrificial rites the world over, will be different both between and within different cultures. Another question is, like the nerd and the “virgin” in the film, will we stand up and say enough is enough?
The Cabin in the Woods (95 mins.) is rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, language, drug use, and some sexuality/nudity and is in theaters everywhere. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of all there is to talk about after seeing the film. I highly recommend it.