No one really runs away from anything. It's like a private trap that holds us in like a prison. You know what I think? I think that we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.
Norman Bates was talking about his own life when he said that. The death of Marion Crane only served to prove his point, which is partly about personalities and partly about filmmaking. In either case, he believed that people create their own challenges, and end up as they do because of who they are. This means that it’s only themselves they have to defeat, if they want to get to “The End” with more than they started. Though Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) may or may not struggle against her own Norman Bates in the underground bunker that encompasses almost all of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the true prison is the one built by her mind. The film’s special intrigue comes from the fact that whether the world was attacked by Russians or Nazis, by illegal aliens or extraterrestrial ones, the film isn’t about beating them or becoming an indestructible action hero or falling in love. It’s about budging an inch.
Director Dan Trachtenberg is a name to watch. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, his first feature film, he steps nimbly around every pitfall of the average summer horror film with cinematography that doesn’t pander to what an audience expects, but pressures it to believe everything it says. Where normal budget horror jolts the viewer with harsh twangs and a false scare that you know is coming, 10 Cloverfield Lane never falsifies anything. When the door gives a primeval creak and Howard (John Goodman) lumbers into Michelle’s cell, he reassures her (and us) that everything is okay, while the music and the ominous sightline of the camera portends to us that something’s very wrong. The camera joins characters’ gazes within and between edits, constantly informing the tone with who is speaking and how they’re looking at what they’re looking at. Even without its themes of imprisonment and doubt, the cinematography colludes Michelle’s experiences into an oppressively creepy awe that steeps every second of 10 Cloverfield Lane with tension. We’re not sure who to believe. Howard may be a Confederate nut-hack who spent a fortune on a bunker, but he turns out to have been right about something. We’re not sure what, exactly. He claims that the world is uninhabitable, that the air is contaminated, that there was an attack. But since Trachtenberg keeps the film small, our view of the truth is barely bigger than Michelle’s cell.
As one of the Coen brothers’ go-to guys in such parodic romps as The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? John Goodman has proven himself as one of the industry’s best character actors. In 10 Cloverfield Lane he out-characters himself. This role has the manifold darkness and disarming grace that the Coen brothers must have seen in him on flaky TV sitcom Rosanne to cast him as a farcical cyclops and brusque ex-marine. And now Trachtenberg mines him for a good ol’ neighbor man with a twinge of psychopathy, like Hannibal Lector crossed with Archie Bunker. One minute he’ll be saying grace and talking about his cooking, and the next screaming in a murderous rage about Michelle and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) conspiring against him, just because they touched hands passing the salt and pepper. The bulk that he more often uses to weigh down physical comedy like a new Jackie Gleeson has its own frightening inertia here, only exaggerated by the close quarters. One minute he’s a lumbering and jolly cinnamon roll of a man doing a cat puzzle, and the next an overpowering presence that would not be less scary if he boomed from his imperious jowls a hearty, “Fi, fie, foe, fum.” The secret to Goodman’s heft (as opposed to Kevin James’, for instance) is that in neither case is he less threatening. He could easily have been made menacingly mean; in 10 Cloverfield Lane (to much scarier effect) he is menacingly kind.
The best thing about Winstead’s role (and consequently, about 10 Cloverfield Lane in the scheme of modern horror) is that she’s vulnerable but also resourcefully intelligent. These films about the main character not knowing something usually grate on my nerves, with people that do precisely what they should not, in situations that require them to do so in order to keep the plot rolling. Let’s call them “Don’t go in there!” movies, since they cast the audience in an auxiliary role, hoping we won’t ask too much or complain too often. Since the audience doesn’t know what exactly the stakes are in 10 Cloverfield Lane, like Michelle they only know to stay alive by the thread of their attention to detail. And Michelle is never behind us in the deduction. There are micro-twists around every literal corner down in the bunker, as she gets little grenade fragments of evidence to suggest that something’s going on. But since we’re never sure how much of it is meaningful, like the marketing campaign for all of Bad Robot’s films, information manages to both intrigue and work against our understanding. The result is an internally mystifying experience that shapes unease out of negatives, more so than scares, a feeling I remember having down to my bones in Psycho and, to a lesser extent, The Shining.
But unlike most any horror film ever made, 10 Cloverfield Lane contains something completely unexpected. The ending of the film is so unprecedented that after watching it I had to internally process in silence what I had seen just to believe in it. I’m not talking about that “thing” that happens at the end that people would consider a spoiler, but something much more shocking. The main character of this film, by this film, is resolved.
Near the end, you think it’s going to be the archetypical “now what?” horror film ending, the main character looking down two equally darkened roads not knowing what to do next, as though there was nothing in their emotional universe except beating a monster and solving this film’s plot. But the way Michelle is tested, and the choices she makes in the film’s final minutes, prove that 10 Cloverfield Lane is the origin story of a character that we’ve never seen before, and don’t ever need to see again. The crisis in this film, the entrapment, is the illusion of plot: even if Michelle escapes, she will not have solved her real dilemma, which wasn’t that Howard picked her up off the side of the road at the film’s beginning, but that she was running away from her life to begin with. In the film’s final minutes, Trachtenberg miraculously gives Michelle the opportunity to test her resolve and decide whether she will turn around and accept living through the hardships of her life, or continue running away from them. Alien, the last time a horror film left its protagonist so desolately alone, picked up and resolved Ellen Ripley with Aliens by forcing her to go back and face her nightmares. 10 Cloverfield covers the character journey in Aliens in five minutes, with a purposeful fire-cracker of motivated action and brilliant emotional storytelling. We do not leave Michelle with an uncertain happiness: she does not ride off into the sunset. On the contrary, she rides off into a deep dusk that contains unimaginable horrors. But how she feels about it is the real ending, since she herself is the narrative that the plot, of any horror film, can never be. It is as complete a character journey as I could imagine, and connecting it to Cloverfield only deepens the deal.
This is no small feat, however. The first Cloverfield exploited Friday night marquee shoppers with a “You have to see it to believe it” campaign, a teaser that showed very little, a monster shrouded in mystery. This one, stating eerily that “Monsters come in many forms,” seems to think the same thing about sequels because 10 Cloverfield Lane is a standalone film. A micro-budget script under the working title, “The Cellar,” was picked up by Bad Robot and branded for its tonal similarities to their found footage monster flick from 2008. I’m having trouble connecting this series without canonizing a few contradictions. The studio’s name for this inconsistency is to call its sequels “spiritual successors.” This is the nicest way I have ever heard anyone say, “marketing scam.”
But even if that’s how Bad Robot thinks of it, the result is still interesting for the original Cloverfield audience, the ones wringing forums for scraps of info, combing fake websites and dissecting film frames for clues. Watching Cloverfield was a forensic experience made all the more obtuse by its sequel/ prequel. You are best equipped to enjoy it, though it is not required, if the preceding statement made you open your history tabs looking for your old fan-made Wiki research.
As you wouldn’t expect an episode of The Twilight Zone to have anything to do with the previous one, this episode of the “Cloverfield” brand is the employment of a tone and a feeling in the pursuit of an original isolation story that could stand all alone. We now know that the word “Cloverfield” is not a story in a movie universe, but the name for an ever-changing apocalypse scenario, a word like “Goosebumps” or “Amazing Stories.” Films in its series will not have the three-film arc, but will be indie suspense flicks connected by a tone. I had nightmarish flashes of a potential script that tripled the original film’s budget and told the story of the lab experiment that made the monster in the first film, set of course against a backdrop of a sordid love affair between a brilliant but disillusioned scientist and his hot assistant, barely a new idea way back in Tarantula. It was the most scared I’ve been thinking about Cloverfield, because it makes a darksome and interesting little pair of movies typical. We should all fear the inaction, the festering corporate ennui, that takes talent and makes it typical.
10 Cloverfield Lane is upliftingly atypical. The intimate photography oppresses where nothing has to do so in words, which are left to frightening mundanities, a dinner conversation that ends in violence, a puzzle montage that portends disaster. And as Michelle claws her way out of her previous life and frightened personality, there is a genuine emotional arc at work here, of a person who learns through hardship that she might be able to budge an inch. The prisons in 10 Cloverfield Lane may seem dystopian, but they are very like the walls we set up for ourselves when we doubt, scheme, and worry ourselves into our personal oblivions, which exist in every time. They are the reason we dump the people we love because our depth of feeling scares us, the reason we leave at one a.m. and never look back, even though we want to. There is a shrewd grenade pin of emotions holding the conflict together in 10 Cloverfield Lane that gives the genre its pulse back in the form of a genuine resolution for its character, compressing the uncertainty of a plucky everywoman into a diamond absolute of living conviction. The monsters she has to defeat are really those that she makes for herself.
Do you think that you are so different? If you can confidently answer this question, then you have no need for horror. If you cannot, then your own address might as well be “10 Cloverfield Lane.”