10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Here there be spoilers…
A nominal follow-up to Matt Reeves’ entertaining, well-crafted if glib 2008 monster movie Cloverfield, debuting feature director Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane abandons the found-footage camera trickery of Reeves’ film in favour of a different but no less stringent method of limiting the audience’s perspective. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a flailing would-be fashion designer, has just left her boyfriend and is taking a leap into the big unknown. Michelle’s escape goes haywire when she’s struck on a dark highway by an overtaking car and sent careening off the road. She awakens in a featureless, bunker-like cell with her leg in a cast and chained to the wall. Michelle’s canniness under pressure quickly manifests as she utilises minimal tools at hand to reach her cell phone and then try to escape. Her apparent captor, Howard (John Goodman), eventually enters and claims to be her saviour and benefactor, as he rescued her from her crashed car, treated her wounds, and has now given her a place in his exactingly constructed survival shelter, protecting her from a hazily defined calamity that’s laying waste to the world outside.
Two gruesomely killed pigs just beyond the shelter’s confines seem to confirm Howard’s account, but Michelle begins to smell a rat when she recognises Howard’s pick-up as the vehicle that ran her off the road. She learns she’s also sharing the shelter with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a handyman who knew Howard before the calamity and also injured himself trying to gain entry to the shelter. Emmett’s account tallies to a certain extent with Howard’s, and he injured himself fleeing from an event he describes potently but vaguely as a Biblical in its apocalyptic portent and scale. Howard’s own, menacing but rather detail-deficient theories on what’s causing the disaster range from sneak attack by an enemy power to a Martian invasion, pronouncements that do little to assuage Michelle’s distrust. That distrust seems justified as Howard, who plays the soft-spoken, pragmatic expert in survival extending his aegis to two typically foolish, unprepared, ungrateful younger people, soon reveals a bullying, eruptive, genuinely frightening streak. But when the time comes for Michelle to try and make a break, she’s confronted by grim and immediate signs that at least part of Howard’s story is true.
10 Cloverfield Lane combines contemporary filmmaking savvy with a deliberately retro feel. The narrative calls back to canonical episodes of The Twilight Zone TV series, ‘60s and ‘70s survivalist angst movies like Panic in the Year Zero (1962), and chamber piece thrillers like Silvio Narizzano’s Fanatic (1965), William Wyler’s The Collector (1966), and Sutton Roley’s Chosen Survivors (1974). Trachtenberg signals his love of some rather hoary tropes early on when he has Michelle overhear radio reports on the first signs of a mysterious, oncoming disturbance. The filmmaking mode and gestures of nostalgia trend more recent, to the low-budget, high-invention craft of that now-common touchstone of John Carpenter, as well as Steven Spielberg and early James Cameron, whose The Terminator (1984) is singled out for a fitting final tip of the hat in the last shot. Trachtenberg picks up where Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr’s remake of The Thing (2011) left off in pushing Winstead as an inheritor of Sigourney Weaver. Winstead’s situation here represents a superficial inversion of her role in last year’s Faults, where she played the apparent victim who instead proved to be puppet master. Here she plays a character at the mercy of fate and individuals, pushed by circumstance to test her own limits, and finds eventually she doesn’t have any. Winstead’s low, textured voice speak of well-won maturity even as her large, expressive eyes seem permanently youthful, embodies a schism the film exploits smartly, and she’s a certainly a perfect foil for Goodman’s alternations of strained bonhomie and raving lunacy as their relationship takes increasingly odd turns.
Where Michelle’s first awakening in Howard’s clutches evokes the most fetid reaches of potential sexual enslavement, Howard quickly derides any notion he’s a pervert, and instead seems to be protecting his charges from their own worst impulses and reactionary emotions. But he soon starts revealing the opposite tendency, projecting his love for his own absent, apparently deceased daughter onto Michelle, who inherits some of the daughter’s hand-me-down clothes, a wardrobe of amusingly ‘80s gear. After some literally scarring misunderstandings and tense altercations, the trio settle into something resembling sitcom balance, coexisting in their tiny world. But the equilibrium collapses when Michelle is confronted by evidence that Howard’s pretences to benign dictatorship and paternal protectiveness could well prove as dangerous as any other threat, as she deduces from clues scattered around the shelter that Howard’s daughter, far from having been removed far away from him by a shrewish wife, might actually have been held captive by him and died under his thumb. Certain one of them has to try and break out and find if anyone can help, Michelle and Emmett begin fashioning a crude hazmat suit out of scraps salvaged from around the shelter.
If there’s a fault to 10 Cloverfield Lane, it’s one shared by many a mainstream thriller, a certain reticence when it comes to pushing its themes into genuinely weird and discomforting places and to really shaking up the characters’ sense of reality and identity. Trachtenberg is happy to use Howard as figure of shaggy empathy, lodestone of psychological unease, or rampaging saurian beast depending on what Trachtenberg needs in the moment, as in the finale when he’s both trying to brutally murder Michelle but is also begging her to stay with him: the dichotomy, which might be weirdly convincing and pathetic, feels merely indecisive. Trachtenberg shies away from the kind of chilling devolution and depiction of human need sometimes outweighing our strength as depicted in a similar narrative like Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes (1964): we’re assured so often early on that Michelle is a Strong Woman that there’s no fear she’s really tempted to become Howard’s faintly fetishised version of a daughter nor as much resonance to her ultimate rejection of this as there might be. The script, penned by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken with Damien Chazelle (who I suspect was brought in to give the screenplay some of his trademark abusive pep), also takes some annoyingly obvious narrative shortcuts, the very sleek professionalism that provides the film’s entertainment value also partly retarding its deeper effects. Michelle’s first real attempt to escape coincides a little too neatly with a proof that Howard is telling at least part of the truth, rather than forcing her to confront her own uncertainty, and later using a very corny touch to suggest to Michelle that Howard has evil secrets, when she just happens to find an earring that she has seen Howard’s absent daughter wearing in the one photograph he has of her linking her to the word 'Help' mysteriously scratched into a skylight.
10 Cloverfield Lane also reflects an increasingly annoying tendency in contemporary genre cinema, where the metaphoric value of the fantastic has to be underlined to the point where subtext becomes overt, to reassure both creators and audience they’re not simply watching a thrill-ride or, worse, contending with the murk of the deep psyche: things must obey our polite demarcations. Where in last year’s It Follows the official theme was sex is dangerous and this year’s The Invitation it's dealing with grief, here it is resisting entrapment. Michelle is on the run at the start, whilst Emmett reveals to her, in an affecting if calculated monologue, about how he once wimped out of a chance to use his gifts and move out into the larger world. As a consequence he’s barely ever travelled far beyond the limits of his home town, whilst Howard seems to have spent most of his recent life deliberately preparing for complete retreat from the outside world, seeing himself as a wise Noah but actually rather too willing to play angry God with his little universe. Comparing the film to Reeves’ spurious prequel reveals how far the zeitgeist has shifted in the past few years, I find: where that film played its post-9/11 hand indicting its protagonists as haplessly distracted hatchlings for whom the eruption of the awful irrational was pitched as a comeuppance, here the temperament is distinctly inverted, siding squarely with its heroine. The script eventually nudges us a bit too hard as it reveals Howard unable to come up with the word “woman” to describe Michelle, and 10 Cloverfield Lane begs to be read on a socio-political level, both as a death-of-the-patriarchy allegory and also as a mission statement for life-battered Millennials tired of having their lives run, and their expectations shaped by, abusive demagogues trying to sustain hegemony through fear.
In spite of its hesitancy and tendency to mine the obvious, however, 10 Cloverfield Lane is still an expert piece of popular moviemaking, sustained with great confidence for a first feature as Trachtenberg creates tension, eeriness, and a certain spry good-humour within a very limited scope of action. I hesitate to call Trachtenberg’s work Hitchcockian, chiefly because that’s a very overused word, and yet there’s undoubted overlap of method and motif with Rope (1948) and even Vertigo (1958) here. The real question mark of the narrative, finally answered in the last act, is what kind of threat from without are the characters were faced with, and, more vexingly, is that threat actually more immediately dangerous than being trapped in a hole in the ground with a lunatic? The stage seems set for some Shyamalan-esque twist, one which does arrive eventually I suppose, although to their credit the filmmakers, having already laid out a raft of possibilities, simply take up the most outlandish one and use it effectively to expand their theme rather than sabotage it. 10 Cloverfield Lane is actually an extended, elaborate blend of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and the segment in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds where the narrator finds himself trapped with a crumbling zealot: there may well be real monsters out there, but are they really so frightening as the unknown, or as dangerous as the worst kind of human? All proportions maintained, 10 Cloverfield Lane, in evoking classics of Movie Brat cinema, does actually stir some of the same frisson of watching a director with a natural grasp on the medium and able to turn references and models to his own purposes, someone going places and who knows what to do once he gets there.