Film bits and bobs

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)


woke in the prisonhouse of patriarchy

The title 10 Cloverfield Lane, imposed by producers on a script that was originally called The Cellar and tying Dan Trachtenberg’s feature debut loosely – and rather artificially – to Matt Reeves’ 2008 alien invasion movie Cloverfield, may be the main, even the only, reason that this film ever attained a general theatrical release, so in this respect, we should be thankful for it. Yet the title is also its own spoiler, and terribly destructive to the tensions that the film’s first two thirds so deftly strain to mount.

Fleeing a relationship, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is violently sideswiped by another vehicle on the road, and awakens injured in an underground  bunker. Her host, ex-military conspiracy theorist Howard (John Goodman), is gruffly unhesitant in asserting his authority, while presenting that authority as a sort of paternal benevolence – and his every gesture and utterance set off familiar alarm bells in Michelle. The fact that her leg has been cuffed to a pipe does not add to her reassurance, and viewers too will be wondering what kind of sick scenario is unfolding here.

Howard insists that Michelle cannot leave – not, he says, because she is his prisoner, but rather because there has been some sort of deadly attack above ground. Unsure what to believe, Michelle turns for more human comfort to the only other resident of the bunker, stay-at-home Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), also injured – and together these three form a dysfunctional family unit of sorts, with Howard very much the domineering daddy to this little girl lost and Emmett the nice if gormless fraternal ally she never had.

The claustrophobic scenes in the bunker create a suffocating microcosm of fugitive Michelle’s problems, and for once deny her an easy escape route, forcing the kind of confrontation that she has been avoiding all her life. Make no mistake: while this three-hander cannot possibly pass the Bechdel test, it is nonetheless driven by real feminist concerns, as Michelle has an awakening in the prisonhouse of patriarchy.

The three actors shine as people caught in rôles assigned to them long before they entered their domestic cage. It is just a pity that the tacked-on ending, far from coming as any surprise, delivers exactly what viewers have been expecting all along (thanks to that dumb-assed title) – even if, by then, there is no real distinction remaining between monsters outside and in. Here, science fiction is just another generic mode of expression for more intimate (and frankly more interesting) psychodramas, ultimately projected on a national scale.

Anton Bitel

4 comments on “10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

  1. Stevie
    March 26, 2016

    What the hell does feminism have anything to do with her concerns? Did you need a buzzy word to shoehorn a theme into your review? Anytime a woman rises up from “concern”, it’s about feminism and just not about instinct and reading the tea leaves? Wtf?

    • rantbit
      March 27, 2016

      Hi Stevie.

      First, some basics. Feminism is an ideology which, broadly speaking, resists the pervasive influence of patriarchy. Patriarchy is a closed system, traditional in many cultures, which perpetuates the advancement of men at the expense of women. Patriarchy also, importantly, derives form the ancient Greek word for ‘rule by the father’, or ‘paternal dominance’.

      Bearing all this in mind, here is why I believe that 10 Cloverfield Lane dramatises the feminist awakening of its protagonist Michelle. Warning: here be spoilers.

      When we first meet her, Michelle has removed her engagement ring – a traditional symbol of being tied to a man – and flown the coop. We never find out the precise cause of her second thoughts about marriage, but when her fiancé calls her on her car phone, he makes reference to her habit of always running away from problems rather than facing up to them. This generalised claim is then borne out by two stories that she subsequently tells, both about dominant fathers (patriarchy klaxon): 1) she never stood up to her own, extremely abusive father, and it was only because of the protection from her older brother that she was able to survive in her father’s house – which she left as soon as she was old enough; 2) when, as an adult, she saw a father viciously bulling his own young daughter, she knew that she ought to have intervened and confronted the father, but instead she just left – something for which she has never forgiven herself.

      Now Michelle finds herself in a kind of parodic reiteration of her own childhood home: once again trapped in a household under the control of the domineering Howard, who is emphatically a father, and most definitely an entrapper and abuser (murderer even) of young women. Here again she is protected by the presence a younger man, Emmett, who proves her ally (as her brother had proven previously). This bunker is, like her own father’s house, a microcosm of patriarchy, where daddy calls all the shots and Michelle is a prisoner over whom the threat of sexual abuse and violence constantly hangs. Only this time, instead of just running away as usual from the patriarchal problem that Howard embodies – given that, as she quickly learns, there is no simple escape from the bunker – Michelle for the first time confronts patriarchy and does battle with Howard. This is her awakening – the moment where, in changing from a merely passive to an active opponent to Howard’s monstrous patriarchy, Michelle is liberated (both literally and metaphorically), and able to call out and take on the monstrous male. This also explains why, in the film’s final scene, when she comes to a literal crossroads, she chooses (uncharacteristically, given her history) to drive directly into the fray instead of away from it. She has transformed, and we understand that if she were ever again confronted with a patriarch who abused women, she would now choose fight over flight.

      All this is of course a matter of interpretation (something that reviews often provide), and it is entirely up to you whether you accept this reading of the film or not. But I do hope that, regardless of whether you agree with my feminist interpretation of the film, you can acknowledge that it is an interpretation drawn closely from the evidence presented within the film itself, and not, as you suggested, merely shoehorned in gratuitously. Peace out.

      • Lil
        April 20, 2016

        What a fascinating interpretation! I think your feminist reading of the film is spot-on and I’m so glad I read your article and your reply to Stevie’s comment. This point of view helped me understand the significance of her final decision at the end (in which direction to go at the crossroads). Thanks for offering such a well-written and thoroughly thought out theory!

      • rantbit
        April 20, 2016

        You’re welcome – and many thanks! ant

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This entry was posted on March 22, 2016 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , .


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