Starring John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Gallager Jr., 10 Cloverfield Lane is a twisty and unpredictable thriller. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg, it’s a genre hopping, character led experience that borrows little from Cloverfield (2008) but adds a great deal to the franchise.
The hero of the story is Michelle (Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman on the run from her boyfriend. Late at night, driving in the countryside, she’s knocked unconscious in a car crash. She wakes up in a bunker chained to the wall with no explanation of how she got there. Her captor, Howard (Goodman), tells her that there’s been a chemical attack and the outside world is no longer safe.
Alongside Howard, there’s another man living in the bunker, Emmett (Gallager Jr.). A younger man who seemingly doesn’t get along with the more vocal, and at times violent, Howard, but who echoes Howard’s claim of a chemical attack. Michelle doesn’t have much to go on and it’s difficult for her to know what the truth is. But what is certain is she can’t leave the bunker.
From this point on 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps a tight spacial focus and the plot exists within the cramped confines of the bunker. Howard is a conspiracy nut and he’s spent time and money proactively building a safe haven in case of an attack. The bunker is well stocked with food and there’s even a jukebox.
Comparisons with Misery (1990) are unavoidable, but for Michelle the danger is less overt and far more difficult to define. She enjoys some freedom and agency and it seems that the forces keeping her captive are external ones, making it easy to deflect the blame from Howard. And Trachtenberg’s paranoia infused narrative makes it difficult to get an accurate reading on Howard. This uneasy subtext and unreliable narration makes for a tense cinematic experience.
The camera work is close and localised and it mirrors Michelle’s perspective lending claustrophobia to an already uncomfortable film. The pacing is handled well. The film is slow to begin with, but as the narrative moves towards its third act things start to pick up. Pieces of the puzzle slot together and the wider picture becomes clearer.
The film jumps genres at several points, borrowing conventions from thriller, horror, and science fiction storytelling. But, at its heart, 10 Cloverfield Lane is really a character driven drama, with each character forced to react and change within an uncertain world.
What I particularly enjoyed was the strong performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. In her hands, Michelle is a confident and charismatic character, someone who won’t take anyone else’s word for what’s happening outside. She has to see and experience it for herself and she’s not easily controlled. This is something that unsettles Howard, a man used to being in charge.
Instead she has to test everything for herself and Michelle’s story is even more interesting due to the male bounded nature of the narrative. She starts the film running away from her boyfriend, and then she finds herself locked up in a bunker with Emmet and Howard. It seems that wherever she goes there’s a man trying to shape her story.
A Family Story
Within the bunker, a strange sort of familial relationship emerges with Howard taking on a father role, and the other two falling in line as brother and sister. Once these roles are established, things become more peaceful with Howard cooking dinner for his ‘family’ and Emmett and Michelle passing the time by watching old movies, or playing board games.
In a wider sense, there’s a thematic backdrop that suggests that Michelle’s journey is one of growing up. The outside world is alien to her and the only way that she can see what it’s like is from Howard, and to a lesser extent, Emmett. To truly understand it for herself she has to escape the confines of the bunker and the narrative told by Howard in order to become autonomous and shape her own experiences.
To do so she has to overcome an overbearing father figure. Howard, initially quite hands off with his ‘children’, becomes more vocal and controlling as the story unfolds. This adds to the tension throughout the film, and it’s apparent that conflict between the two is inevitable. For Michelle, whatever it is that’s outside is better than her life in the bunker.
In a seemingly gentle moment, Howard plays this song on the jukebox. The subtext, however, is far darker and the disquieting lyric ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ contributes to the film’s sense of unease.
Uneasy Balance of Power
Michelle is a disruptive influence in the bunker. When she arrives Emmett and Howard seem to have worked out ways to coexist together, albeit not always happy ones. The introduction of Michelle into the mix seems to bring up old memories for Howard. It disturbs the uneasy balance of power in the bunker, pushing Emmett to become more vocal, making Howard feel challenged in his position at the ‘head of the household.’
Howard wants to be in charge. This creates an abusive, and often times violent, subtext to the story, but there’s often gentler and quieter moments in amongst the confusion too. When everyone accepts the roles ascribed by Howard, things run smoothly. For Michelle, though, this goes against who she is and the overarching narrative seems to focus on a power struggle between her and Howard.
Michelle ran away from her boyfriend looking for a new start. Instead she found a much more literal prison, one that she couldn’t escape from unless she confronted her problems. This ties into the idea that the conflict at the heart of 10 Cloverfield Lane is a gendered one, and the story is really about a young woman trying the escape the male dominated context she’s trapped within.
Character Led Storytelling
In terms of the wider film, the segue from genre to genre is mostly smooth. The narrative is constantly surprising, with each moment grounded by strong performances. John Goodman does well as Howard, adding uncertainty to every moment. He’s not easily readable, something that makes things difficult for Michelle. And John Gallagher Jr. is an excellent foil for the other actors to bounce off.
But for me the story was the strongest part of the film. The power struggle in the bunker, the way it shapes identities, and the way that Michelle is forced to push back against Howard as they both vie for control and influence, is intricately drawn. It’s a film about change, it’s a story about transition, and the flitting and difficult to define genre makes for an uneasy context for the story the film contains.
10 Cloverfield Lane is an excellent cinematic experience from director Dan Trachtenberg. It’s a character led piece, but one that doesn’t shy away from big visual moments either. It’s twisty and unsettling but it’s also gentle and poignant. It’s in the inbetween, in the moments where it resists definition, that its own unique identity emerges.