10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Directed by Dan Trachtenberg

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10 Cloverfield Lane is a horror/thriller set almost entirely in an underground bomb shelter, leaning heavily on only three people to carry the movie.  It’s terrifically intense and creepy, but the story doesn’t seem to want to commit to extreme horror or something more nuanced.  Instead we’re right in the middle, with some horror and gore but not enough to deter any viewers (they want to make money after all), and with an antagonist (John Goodman) who is mostly only horrible for what we’re told he’s done, not what he does.

Now, that character, named Howard, is pretty evil it turns out, and from the beginning we’re led to be weary of him, even when his reasons for keeping Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) locked in the bunker turn out to have merit.  The whole story is told through Michelle’s eyes.  She gets into a bad car accident and wakes up chained inside a cell.  Her captor, Howard, tells her that there was an attack, and it’s not safe to go above ground.  If this movie didn’t have Cloverfield in the title, then the mystery might be a little more engaging.  But since we know it’s a Cloverfield movie, we know that Howard is right, even if he is creepy.  I suppose the mystery to us is whether Howard is right that the air is toxic. Having seen Cloverfield (2008), I don’t remember anything about unbreathable air, so there is a question as to whether Howard is lying to Michelle to keep her down there or he’s onto something.

Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) is a contractor who tells Michelle he begged Howard to let him into his bunker.  This is a point in Howard’s favor, and when Michelle escapes to the hatch, she sees a woman begging to be let him while her face peels and melts in front of our eyes.

So, despite Howard’s creepy factor, he has been right about everything so far.  Michelle decides to stay in the bunker, but things quickly get weird again when Michelle discovers that Howard has lied about his daughter.  The girl he claimed was his own daughter was really a girl that went missing two years ago and whom Howard presumably killed.  One piece of evidence: bloody earrings matching those worn by the girl in a photo and that were used to scrawl “HELP” on the inside of the glass of the bunker.

So the story finds itself in an incredibly horrifying and engaging dilemma.  Michelle knows the outside world is in fact harmful, but she also knows she’s locked in a bunker with a murderer and a rapist.  Emmett doesn’t dismiss her story when she tells it to him, and soon they work on an escape plan.  It involves using discarded shower curtains to fasten a hazmat suit (Michelle is a seamstress).

Howard finds out that the two of them are up to something (having noticed that they took the scissors), and when he confronts them about it, Emmett takes full responsibility.  Emmett claims that he was making a weapon because he wanted Michelle to respect him the way she does Howard.  Emmett claimed he was going to use the weapon on Howard, so Howard shoots and kills him.  It’s a chilling moment, one that was completely unexpected to me.  This moment works dramatically because Emmett has fulfilled his purpose.  He helped steal the scissors for Michelle, and as Michelle told him, there’s only enough material for one suit.  So with Emmett gone, there’s one less dilemma to worry about (though I’m sure Michelle would happily accept that dilemma if it meant Emmett could be alive).  This moment also occurs when it does because it cements, in Michelle’s mind, that Howard is truly evil.  She already knows all of his dirty secrets, so the next step was for him to do something that reminded her how evil he is.  The only next thing to do is to act and to escape, which she does.

Now, the escape sequence is thrilling.  Michelle is in her room/cell when Howard comes in and notices that she has hidden something (the hazmat mask) in her vent.  He pushes her away, and, knowing she’s been caught, she closes the door on him and barricades it hurriedly.  Howard runs after her, and she tips over a vat of acid (used to dissolved Emmett’s body) into which Howard stumbles and burns.

Michelle grabs her suit and climbs out through the ventilation system, but Howard begins to blindly thrust a hunting knife into the vent as she crawls through.  This made me incredibly uncomfortable for obvious reasons, I mean, it’s claustrophobic and there’s a damned knife that could get you at any second.  It doesn’t, though, and Michelle gets away.

The rest of the film, the final sequence, feels completely out of this world because… it is.  It’s the first time we’ve seen Michelle out of the bunker since we’ve gotten to know her.  The only other time was the few minutes at the start of the film in which all we know about her is that she’s running away from a boyfriend.  So this end to the film feels like another film entirely, but I’ll get there.

I first want to talk about Howard and that balance between horror and nuance.  These two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, but I think in horror the villain is often outrageously evil, just to make the danger clear.  In other films, there is no black and white.  The hero might not be wholly good, and the villain might not be wholly evil.  In 10 Cloverfield Lane, there is a lot about Howard that makes him unsettling and eventually outright evil, but he never harms Michelle until she burns him with acid.

Howard did run Michelle off the road, but he claims it was an accident.  It sure seems intentional from our perspective, but maybe it was an accident?  Okay, well, I guess Michelle’s fear is about Howard hurting her in some way.  The discovery of the previous victim tells Michelle that he WILL hurt her.  The nuance could come in if Howard had no intention of hurting her.  It would be creepy, unsettling, eerie, uncomfortable, etc. if Michelle discovered that she was in the care of a murderer/rapist and yet he had only helped her.  It’s uncomfortable to talk about Howard as not wholly evil, considering what he did, but up until a certain point in the movie, he had only cared for Michelle.  This is a huge gray area, and I could understand why a summer action movie wouldn’t want to touch it, so 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t.  It might me more interesting, though, if Howard had no intention of hurting Michelle.  His character is always balancing the line between good and evil since Michelle (and we) can’t decide how much truth he’s telling.

I like the idea of the movie never giving us a real clue as to his real intentions with Michelle.  Howard does kill Emmett, who we like, but if you look at it from Howard’s perspective, Emmett betrayed his trust, then claimed to be making a weapon to use on Howard himself.  It’s understandable why Howard might see this as a threat and not want to beat around the bush.  It’s horrifying, but this is a post-apocalyptic-esque world where normal rules don’t apply.

The real point is that the film could have approached more of that nuance.  Maybe when Michelle burns Howard and ultimately escapes, what if she didn’t really know what he was going to do?  After Emmett is killed, Howard shaves his beard and dresses nicely, and it’s a chilling moment because it implies, to me, that his intentions for Michelle were not unlike what he did with the previous girl he killed.  It’s a moment that reveals what Howard wanted all along.  Again, it works, because it terrified me (and it’s such a simple wardrobe effect), but I don’t think it was completely necessary.

Okay, now I also think that the film could’ve gone the other direction and made Howard even more horrifying.  The only reason I don’t think this would work is because the story waits a while before we know for sure that Howard is evil.  It’s like Howard had a plan for Michelle but he waited long enough so she could discover this secret information about him.  If he’s as evil as he’s made out to be, it doesn’t seem like he would hold anything back.  I can understand Howard might want to pretend to be normal since he has a good excuse for imprisoning Michelle (again, the toxic air), so it’s not necessary to restrain her if she can see herself why she should stay in the bunker.  But what’s with Emmett?  I don’t understand why Howard would let Emmett anywhere near the bunker.  Emmett told Michelle he had to fight to get in, but I can also see Emmett, armed with his gun, forcibly keeping him out.

I don’t know, really.  I thought this was a great movie, but it at times ventured into deeply horrifying territory and at other times raised interesting questions that it answered in satisfying ways (and that might have been better left unanswered).  Howard only really becomes a monster when he’s allowed to (once the script reaches the climax), and I think he should’ve become monstrous earlier (if at all) since we had a pretty good idea that he was a monster all along.

Now, the end is also thrilling because we finally see the aliens and the world that we’ve been told is unsafe.  I think the movie was obligated to show this, and I don’t mind it except for the final moment when Michelle is lifted into the alien ship but throws a molotov cocktail in at the last moment, saving her life.  This really stretches the movie’s own believability and felt like it should have been left out.  It’s also a moment straight out of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005).

Overall, though, this was a great film with an awesome premise that I think could have been pushed a number of ways.  I guess, to me, a really good movie premise means it can go a bunch of different ways.  To be executed well, the premise must be pushed in a certain direction.  In this case, the horror should have been amped up (basically meaning we cut out the middle of this film and get to Michelle knowing Howard is a monster much earlier) or the philosophical/moral questions should have been given more weight (this would mean not vilifying or making Howard heroic but rather letting the mystery rest without possibly ever being answer).  In the latter case, the story isn’t about what Howard really is but what he could be and what Michelle does with the mystery.


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