Less Is More: Does the Ending of The Cabin in the Woods Explain Too Much?

Warning, in case you didn’t read the headline: the following discusses the ending of The Cabin in the Woods and (obviously) contains spoilers.

There’s a paragraph in Roger Ebert’s review of 2010 that’s stuck with me all these years, in which he discusses why he included a quote from e.e. cummings (“I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance”) in his review, years earlier, of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He wrote:

The Cabin in the Woods

That was my response to the people who said they couldn’t understand 2001, that it made no sense and that it was one long exercise in self-indulgence by Stanley Kubrick, who had sent a man to the stars, only to abandon him inside some sort of extraterrestrial hotel room. I felt that the poetry of 2001 was precisely in its mystery, and that to explain everything was to ruin everything — like the little boy who cut open his drum to see what made it bang.

Oh, how that paragraph (and much of what followed in that review) wormed its way into my brain. It managed to put into words why, even in my youth, I preferred a story with a few loose ends (provided, of course, the ends were left untied intentionally, not as a result of sloppy storytelling, but you get my drift). Between walking away content with everything spelled out for me in the final scenes and getting into a debate with friends about what secret truths lie under a film’s surface, I’ll take the debate every time.

Which brings us to The Cabin in the Woods. (Considering the spoiler warning above, I’ll assume you’ve seen the movie and no plot recap is necessary.) For most of its run time, I was convinced I’d be walking out of the theater eager to discuss all the hints and mentions and asides meant to clue us in to the Big Picture without ever truly revealing it. Indeed, the script revels in its teases; the bit where the baddies cut off Amy Acker mid-sentence before she lets slip too much about the “ancient ones” is dripping with playful obviousness about its secrets.

Consider how the entire movie is set up to be rewatchable. That is, even though its story is all about how much the audience knows and when they know it, the screenplay is not built entirely upon a stack of twists and surprises that serve as the story’s lone purpose; Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard practice the Art of the Reveal in many of the right ways and refreshingly few of the wrong ones. Here is a film designed by its makers to reward the perceptive. It’s meant to get us talking, arguing, revisiting, all to put the pieces together.

And then Sigourney Weaver shows up and tells us everything.

It’s not a bad scene, really. But do we need it? My answer, as you can guess, is no. Weaver’s “here’s how everything works and why everything happens and I’ll repeat it twice for the benefit of those in the back row” speech is not only redundant (as filmmaker Chance Shirley pointed out on Twitter, there’s nothing Weaver says that we couldn’t have pieced together ourselves*), but, more importantly, it strips away the wonder of the mystery. Can you think of any ambiguous story that could be improved by having somebody randomly walk in and explain away every question via monologue?

I’m curious why Whedon and Goddard felt the need to include such an ending. Did they think a movie like this required a bit of dumbing down? (Unlikely, since the rest of the movie assumes a certain amount of viewer intelligence; anybody still lost and in need of a clarifying monologue by this point is beyond help anyway.) Did they think such a speech was a reward for the audience, thanking them for their patience by answering any leftover questions? (Improbable, for the same trust-in-audience reasons.) Did they think such a scene was mandatory, since, hey, these sorts of moments happen all the time in the movies? (Doubtful, for a film this interested in bucking expectations.)

My best guess – and it’s a far-fetched one, so please have your salt grains handy – is that the duo got so wrapped up in creating the film’s universe and its backstory that they simply forgot to exclude it. As a writer, it’s easy, when crafting all these details and motivations, to forget which bits the audience needs and which they don’t. The level of in-universe history may have been essential to Whedon and Goddard when constructing their tale, but it’s not essential to the audience’s tour through that world. (To strain a metaphor even further: Cabin‘s first 85 minutes are Boba Fett, while its last ten are a moody teenager eating soup with his clone dad.)

To be fair, the ending is not enough to derail the film. It certainly works within the universe the movie has created, and it sets up a finale that’s both apocalyptic and somewhat open-ended, all with the same cheeky verve the rest of the movie delivers. And, more importantly, it gets us to precisely the ending the film needs. Nothing that happens around the over-explanation is forced or ill-fitting here; I can’t imagine the path these characters take leading anywhere other than the cynical world-ending one we get.

But still. If only the script didn’t cut open its drum to show us how it bangs.

*I should add that Chance wrote as a defense of the ending, figuring since Weaver’s speech avoids adding anything we couldn’t have figured out, it doesn’t get the opportunity to ruin anything with an unearned late-game Shyamalanian revelation. That’s a fair assessment.

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9 thoughts on “Less Is More: Does the Ending of The Cabin in the Woods Explain Too Much?

  1. Chance says:

    I might be remembering this wrong, but it seems like when Sigourney Weaver showed up and started explaining everything, she was trying to convince the stoner guy that he needed to die to save the world. If that’s the case, it makes total sense from a character/plot standpoint, if not from an audience satisfaction standpoint. (Like you, I prefer movies with a few loose ends.)

    I have struggled with similar scenes myself when writing screenplays (screenplays less brilliant than “Cabin,” obviously). For example: two characters meet onscreen for the first time, though the audience is already familiar with both. One character needs to explain something to the other character, but it’s something the audience already knows. So what does the screenwriter do? I usually try to find a way for these types of character interactions to happen off-screen, but that isn’t always possible. And given the events in motion when the kids meet Weaver at the end of “Cabin,” I’m not sure it could have played out any other way.

    Well, I guess Weaver could have said, “Please, let me explain.” Then Final Girl could have shot her before she explained. I don’t know if that would have been a more satisfying ending, though.

    • I like that – it makes the over-explanation work in terms of the characters, which I didn’t read it as at first.

      As for your recap problem: I always get jealous of novelists when I read “and then I told him everything that happened” and know filmmakers can never get away with that trick.

  2. Eric says:

    I’m highly curious how many (on a 1-10 scale) of viewers you seem to think are intelligent and did not benefit from the end Weaver clip? From what I grasp you must think its roughly 8-9 out of 10? Have you watched recent television? Reality shows? Seen the news.. Or best example, experienced people in general in a first hand situation? People are F’n idiots!! What drew me to your page was a hope to offer an opinion on a plot hole i feel was left in a well-stitched flick. Did the world end? I don’t remember seeing our fan favorite green smoking cliche ever take a bullet to the head.. or being torn apart by an extra from ‘snakes on a plane’. Remember he was on the clock; 8 minutes from when spoken words from Weavers luscious lips. I did catch the largely inflamed arm tear threw the cabin in the finale to work into the credits.. but what does this tell me exactly? Should i expect a visit from a mermaid in the near future?

    Thought??

    • Many people are indeed f’n idiots… but many more aren’t. I’d rather make the idiots have to play catch up than make the rest of the world slow down.

      And (I haven’t rewatched the movie yet, so I’m going on five-month-old memory here, so correct me if I slip up on this) I do believe the world ends, at least in terms of the “ancient ones” awakening. The movie is pretty clear about it – the rules were broken and the sacrifice unfinished. Barring a potential sequel’s attempt to concoct a way to put the monsters back to sleep, we must read the ending as the end of the world as we know it.

  3. Sigourney Weaver’s appearance in the film is symbolic, and the cherry on top for Whedon and Goddard’s commentary on the horror genre. She played the “virgin survivor” in Alien, remember. Why not have her pop up as an older, cynical character who explains the rules of the game to her younger, innocent counterpart? The point would have been better made if Jamie Lee Curtis had been cast instead of Weaver, but I’m guessing she was unavailable.

    (Totally agree, though, that the exposition spoiled the ending a bit. We didn’t need to have the dots joined up by that point, and there could have been another way for a Weaver/Curtis analogue to make their appearance.)

  4. Greg evans says:

    I don’t know what you guys are complaining about. It was the ending which made the movie thoroughly enjoyable. And the last part (the explanation bit) is a difficult job for a writer mind you (this coming from a writer who lets his readers do the explanation.)

    My view – It was a deserving explanation.

  5. nunzer says:

    I liked the explanation. I don’t get many movies and like it when it’s explained. Anyway, I wanted to learn more about the characters played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. About their world. And SW gave me that.

  6. calhounite says:

    I don’t need the expalnation either. Can usually figure things out for myself.
    Like the red button, for instance, leading to argammedon.
    The snake.
    Too big. Filled up the whole cell. During shakedowns, not enough room for the guard.

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