When Cloverfield came out in 2008, no one knew what to make of it. It was a monster movie that ignored all the rules. The film was shot found-footage style; it cast a bunch of unknowns to lend truth to the premise; and the origins of the monster remained a mystery to the very end. So it’s surprising that 10 Cloverfield Lane shares some DNA with its “predecessor” considering it’s the anti-Cloverfield in so many ways, which is probably why people are still scratching their heads over it. Director Dan Trachtenberg ditches the shaky cam and the canvas of a city under siege and confines us to a bunker where a different kind of monster lurks altogether. As the tagline suggests, “Monsters come in many forms.” The movie itself is about many things, but ultimately 10 Cloverfield Lane tells a harrowing story about abuse – a fable that, in the light of so many domestic violence and college rape accounts, hits strikingly close to home.
The film starts out broad with an establishing shot of an unsuspecting city. Our expectations lead us to believe that something looms not too far off. An attack. A monster. Or both. It’s the kind of visual foreshadowing that only a film bearing the name “Cloverfield” can generate. But from here the camera slowly pans to the inside of an apartment, indicating that the film will gradually become more intimate and personal.
A picture frame topples over, fooling us into thinking that a natural disaster has occurred, but in actuality Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in the midst of an emotional fallout. She is packing her things and running far, far away. A phone call from her boyfriend hints that Michelle has made a habit out of avoiding her problems. Her silence throughout the opening montage, however, suggests that something deeper is going on, that she’s not a compulsive runaway and instead someone wrestling with unresolved trauma.
So it’s with a bit of coincidence that Michelle winds up in an accident just as something has begun to attack the city. Whatever it is has caused major blackouts and rendered the air virtually toxic. Staying in the bunker is the only option. Or so she’s told by Howard (John Goodman), her supposed savior who has also chained her to a wall. This man says he saved her from the wreckage therefore she should be grateful, his exact words, completely side-stepping the fact that she has essentially become his prisoner, and he her captor. If it wasn’t for Emmett’s presence (John Gallagher Jr.), the other person in the bunker who ironically fought his way in, Michelle would have no way of knowing if what Howard is saying is true. As events unfold, half of what he says is true. But which half?
Michelle is our main focal point, grounding us amidst all this exposition. The fact that she’s the only female character in the story is no coincidence. She’s taken advantage of almost immediately as she wakes up in her underwear. Howard even calls her by name. He says he looked through her wallet and justifies invading her privacy by claiming he saved her from the attack, therefore any wrongdoing or further wrongdoing on his part is cancelled out by his generosity. This is the kind of amoral shortcut that clues us in on Howard’s unreliability.
Howard begins to exert his power on her from here. Not only has he physically alienated Michelle, he also tells her that everyone she cares about is gone when there’s no way he can know for sure. He reminds her that he built the bunker himself so if it wasn’t for him they wouldn’t be alive. Howard believes he’s the hero in this scenario and dictates the narrative for his own benefit. But a hero isn’t supposed to dictate anything. The most chilling line in the movie comes early on when they sit down for their first meal together, and, upon lamenting his own mediocre culinary skills, quietly says to Michelle, “You’ll learn to love cooking.”
Howard has the capacity to be a kind man. In such moments, he sounds exactly like Sully – Goodman’s character from Monsters Inc (I imagine the filmmakers had fun with that juxtaposition). He’s delighted in playing board games, dances to old tunes, and on occasion he can’t help but share memories of his daughter Megan. The way he talks about her is supposed to imply that he lost her, so we should be sympathizing with him, maybe even be comforted by his loss. Or maybe it’s an attempt to further control Michelle. Howard coincides these tales of “Megan” whenever Michelle is fulfilling a domestic task. He knows Michelle is softened by these stories so he peppers them in when her guard is down, subtly conditioning her to behave the way he sees fit. Even more disconcerting, he has even gotten Michelle to dress the way “Megan” once used to.
When Michelle finds out that Howard was the one who ran her off the road, he still reverts to his version of the truth: “I saved you.” He justifies his preying on her and feels he’s entitled to endless gratitude. It becomes clear, or as clear as the film can be, that he doesn’t just want her respect; he wants her. When Michelle’s behavior doesn’t align with Howard’s expectations, he becomes volatile. A brief flirtation with Emmett, which is used as a distraction, causes Howard to explode. He lashes out, getting as up and close as he can without actually hitting her. In his eyes, if Michelle is to flirt with anyone it’s going to be him. His actions and expectations towards Michelle isn’t borderline abusive. It is abusive.
What we learn about Michelle along the way is that she has a history of abuse. Nothing is detailed exclusively for us, save for a brief snippet about a violent father, and a brother who always stood up for her. We later learn that the reason she was fleeing in the first place was because of a fight with her boyfriend. Whether the fight got physical is up in the air. All we need to know is that she’s running away. Of course, you don’t solve anything by running away, so it’s with a bitter irony that in trying to escape, Michelle winds up in the manipulative hands of a far more sinister monster. But the film isn’t interested in victimizing Michelle. Instead, 10 Cloverfield Lane is interested in what someone in her position will do, particularly when she’s had enough.
On the surface, Michelle is Howard’s “victim,” but that doesn’t make her any less capable. She’s smart enough to see the cracks in Howard’s story, and savvy when it comes to using the severely limited resources at hand. Even with Emmett on her side, she’s not totally reliant on him, nor is she helpless or clueless without him. She learns to stand up for herself and manages to escape on her own. Of course, Michelle’s problems didn’t begin in the bunker, so they certainly don’t end there. The same is true for abuse victims. The trauma doesn’t end with the abuse said and done; it starts there. So it is upon escaping the bunker that a new threat awaits.
The last 10 minutes is where the “Cloverfield” part of the title comes in. It’s also the source of many viewers’ frustrations. As it turns out, Howard was right about one thing. Aliens have invaded and have begun exterminating the population. This reveal is sobering for us as it is for her. It may stretch believability, but it’s in keeping with the film’s themes. Anything internalized in the story eventually becomes externalized (the preying, the fallout, the paranoia). And there’s no better way to heighten Michelle’s alienation than for her to come face to face with aliens, and her choosing to do so. She didn’t have a choice in the bunker. Escape was the only option. But that doesn’t mean her time in the bunker was pointless. It taught her, or perhaps reminded her that she has it in her to fight back.
In the final confrontation, Michelle briefly reverts to habit. She runs away, hides, calls for help. In doing so, she realizes that hiding is the cowardly option; it gets her nowhere (Howard had essentially done the same by fleeing underground). The only time she covers any real ground is when she chooses to fight back. Though not without her struggles, she proves herself capable against not one, but two aliens. And rather than basking in the glory, she remains steadfast in her choice by choosing to go to Houston, and thus, continuing the fight.
10 Cloverfield Lane may leave a great deal to the imagination, but it uses ambiguity to its storytelling advantages. It eschews a whole lot of suspense and creepiness by withholding details surrounding Howard, and provides plenty of emotional satisfaction by sympathizing with Michelle as a character instead of exploiting her as a victim. There may be no logical way to explain why an abuser acts out. There may even be no definable proof of whether aliens exist. What’s important is what these things help symbolize in the context of Michelle’s journey. Because as 10 Cloverfield Lane says quite poignantly, it’s not about the abuse or the trauma, but what people do to overcome it.
10 Cloverfield Lane is out on Blu-ray today