Guest Author: Cayla McNally
When I saw 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016) I was stunned, to say the least. Having seen Cloverfield in all its shaky-cam glory in 2008, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this iteration, and I certainly didn’t expect the film to be as feminist as it is.
It tells the story of Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who jilts her fiancé, gets into a car accident, and wakes up chained to a wall. She is being held there by Howard (John Goodman) who claims to have brought her to his underground bunker in order to save her life. He also claims that a large-scale attack occurred shortly after her accident, thus making leaving the bunker impossible. His story is corroborated by Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), who helped build the bunker and witnessed the attack. However, Michelle is rightfully skeptical, and as the narrative unwinds, the truth proves to be more sinister than originally imagined.
At its heart, 10 Cloverfield Lane is ultimately a story of private and public disaster, of oppression on a micro and macro level, and of the banality of monstrosity. Patriarchy, the practice of disenfranchising and infantilizing women, often with the goal of silencing and protecting them, is – without revealing everything- the true monster of the film.
Howard replicates the structure of a family- placing himself in the role of patriarch- but he renders it uncanny. He controls when Michelle can go to the bathroom, when she can eat, and how she can interact with Emmett. Yet it seems that exacting control isn’t enough for Howard; he needs to control Michelle, but he also needs her to submit to the control, to appreciate the control. He wants Michelle to both crave and appreciate his protection and guidance. “Tell me you’re going to behave,” he implores menacingly, chasing adoration and compliance in equal measure. When he feels slighted, disrespected, or out of control, he becomes petulant at best, unpredictable at worst.
There are times when the bunker is a pleasant place (cue the family-putting-a-puzzle-together montage), but it is still a gilded cage. For me, the most horrifying scene of the film is during one of these familial moments. While playing “Password,” Emmett prompts “Michelle is a …” to which Howard guesses “girl,” “child,” “girl,” and finally, “princess.” The idea of Michelle being a woman never crosses his mind. He is using a grown woman to replace his absent daughter- the mysterious and estranged Megan- and while his attention seems to be decidedly unsexual, it is still highly dangerous.
Michelle is a powerful Final Girl who accepts and asserts her agency early on in the film. The first thing she does upon waking up in the bunker is fight back, turning her crutch into a weapon; and she continues to persevere by continually turning her (here, metaphorical) crutches into very real weapons against the patriarchal structure that defines the bunker. Michelle is small and quiet, and she uses those classically female, submissive traits to subvert the power that is exerted over her existence. As her backstory of abuse makes clear, she has been silent and silenced in the past. But in this case, her silence doesn’t indicate compliance, but rather deviance. Michelle uses what she learns during her time in the bunker to dismantle it. As Howard’s presence becomes increasingly oppressive, she observes everything with a keen eye, waiting for her chance to escape. A prime example of this occurs during one of their “family dinners.” Howard, enraged by Michelle’s faux flirting with Emmett, violently erupts; Michelle uses this as an opportunity to steal his keys and attempt to escape.
Throughout its entirety, the film plays with believability; the narrative itself is unreliable. Michelle is repeatedly told that a disaster has wiped out life above ground, yet she is skeptical and needs to see it for herself. Howard’s culpability has an inverse relation to the attack; as long as he can convince Michelle that the outside world is unsafe, he can keep and protect her. Howard truly believes that if he can scare her enough, if he can make the rest of the world seem hostile and uncertain, Michelle will stay and accept his protection. He has no idea what to do when presented with any indication that Michelle exists independently of him, because he wants to protect her to the point of harming her.
In some ways, though, the hypotheticals of Michelle’s life in the bunker don’t really matter; she, like the viewers, must take the bunker at face value. Attack or not, ill intent or not, she has to get out of there. And by playing family while plotting escape, she succeeds in subverting the patriarchy that Howard embodies. And- without giving everything away – Michelle indeed ensures that if patriarchy destroys her, it also destroys itself.
Cayla McNally is a Philadelphia-based Afrofuturist examining the intersection of academia, social justice, and pop culture. She is particularly interested in cyborgs, contamination, and monstrosity. You can find her here: https://twitter.com/caylamonster; https://www.instagram.com/cayla_monster