WHY IS IT, I wonder, that the female action survivor lead is such a popular cinematic trope? Is it the suggestion of physical vulnerability, which renders the—likely male—villain more intimidating, and her inevitable escape more heroic? I don’t know, but it’s no substitute for meaningful psychological development, which is the area in which Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane fails miserably.
The film signals a departure both in style and narrative from its predecessor, which means no shaky handheld footage and no hysterical running away from whatever the hell it is that is taking chunks out of the Big Apple. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a concrete room with her leg chained to the wall after crashing her car leaving New Orleans following a row with her fiancé, Ben. Soon after, we meet her captor, Howard (John Goodman) who tells her, cryptically, that he is “going to keep you alive”. Michelle’s early attempts at escape fail, but she nonetheless shows herself to be highly intelligent and resourceful. She sharpens a wooden crutch into a stake and then creates a fire in the room’s air duct to get Howard’s attention. Howard tells Michelle not long after that there was a “chemical or nuclear attack” by “Russians” or, he says without humour or self-awareness, “Martians”, and the fallout could last up to two years.
Howard’s account has the advantage of corresponding to the events of the first film, of course, in which the arrival of the monster was assumed by the public to be some sort of attack, but we still can’t be certain, and if we are skeptical about Howard’s account of how Michelle came to be in the bunker, we must treat everything said by him and about him with skepticism. It isn’t long after before we see the signs of Howard’s other side. During a tour of the house he insists drinks are placed “on coasters” on the table, and VHS cassettes put “back in their sleeves” after use, and something tells us that this does not suggest a desire to maintain normality, but an authoritarian streak that may develop into something much more sinister as the film goes on.
Howard’s neuroticism doesn’t necessarily denote he isn’t telling the truth, of course, but even if Michelle concedes—however hesitantly—that he did rescue her from a grisly demise, she still faces the rather unappealing prospect of spending a year or more trapped in a bunker with him. What’s more, simply because he is telling the truth and it isn’t safe to be outside does not mean that it is safe to be locked in a bunker with him either.
The story, then, is more about Howard than it is about the nominal protagonist, which turns out to be fortunate because I never much cared either for Michelle or for her co-captive, Emmett, and during the scenes in which they are alone together Goodman’s sinister presence is notably absent. Michelle’s character arc is interesting enough, but scant attention is paid by the filmmakers to the psychology of the character and we learn so little of her inner life that she is never elevated to more than just a plucky survivor in the much-used mould of Alien‘s Ellen Ripley. The useless Emmett, meanwhile, barely graduates from being “the third person in the bunker”.
But where the film succeeds is in Goodman’s portrayal of Howard, who walks perpetually along a line between trustworthy and untrustworthy, sane and insane, good and evil, and with enough skill that early on you stop caring whether or not there is a 300-foot monster and his friends causing civilisation-ending mischief outside. It’s a performance which engenders a deep and lasting feeling of unease, intensified by a soundtrack that alternates between Bear McCreary’s dark score and upbeat pop from the bunker’s jukebox. The production and set design (by Ramsey Avery, and Michelle Marchand II and Kellie Jo Tinney respectively) is also very good: the bunker has a blandly artificial homeliness which makes it all the more claustrophobic.
10 Cloverfield Lane will hold your attention if only for finding out what, if anything, Howard is up to. It’s an improvement on Cloverfield, even if it is a spiritual successor rather than a direct one, but it never really becomes much more than a simple suspense story with weak elements of psychological horror.