Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Shelter from the Storm

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
--Bob Dylan, "Shelter from the Storm"

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, directed by Dan Trachtenberg) is not, as its distributor would have you believe, an actual sequel to Cloverfield. It is not a found footage film. It is not a kaiju film. It does not indulge in masochistic fantasies of mass destruction. It's a much more intimate film, one that distills the apocalypse down to a microcosm, one in which the biggest threats are human beings, not world-destroying events. At its core, this is a suspense drama rather than a monster movie, unless you want to count human beings as monsters. I'm entirely open to that possibility.

It's probably best to go into this film cold, so here's my usual disclaimer: here there be spoilers.

The plot of 10 Cloverfield Lane finds our heroine, Michelle, leaving a bad relationship and driving into the country from the big city (presumably New Orleans). Her boyfriend continues to text her, which distracts her a bit while she drives, but not so much that she's reckless. It's not her fault when her car is sideswiped by a truck. When she awakens, she's in a bomb shelter, where two men tell her that the world is ending, that there's been an attack of some kind. The owner of the shelter is Howard, a large country man who feels like he's due some respect for saving her life. The other man is Emmett, who, like Michelle, has suffered some kind of injury. Michelle's injury hobbles her, which is a problem as she plots her escape. When she finally gets her opportunity, she's checked by a woman on the outside who is apparently suffering from a chemical attack. Howard's story starts to seem a lot more plausible. Soon, the trio settles into a boring, mundane life, playing board games, putting together jigsaw puzzles. Vegetating. But Howard has his secrets, and as Michelle starts to uncover them, she realizes that she's in as much danger inside the shelter as she might be outside. When she's tasked with restarting the air filtration system, she discovers evidence that Howard's absent daughter may not have merely run from him. She and Emmett form a plan of escape. Unfortunately, Howard is wise to them both...

10 Cloverfield Lane reminds me a bit of Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter. Both have a similar premise: they both trap rational people in bomb shelters with unhinged authority figures. Where this story occupied only the very last act of Take Shelter, it forms almost all of 10 Cloverfield Lane. Nichols's film tends to run away from the genre underpinnings of his story. The makers of this film embrace them. This is crackerjack pulp filmmaking. This is not to say that 10 Cloverfield Lane is less sophisticated than Take Shelter. It's not. There is a keen cinematic sensibility on full display in the film's opening scenes. The opening montage that tells the story of Michelle and her break-up never utters  a word while communicating everything that's going on. The car accident scene over the opening credits is both legitimately terrifying and strikingly abstract at the same time. Even before the story proper begins, this is a film that sets the narrative hooks, even before it establishes what that narrative actually is.

John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Gallagher Jr in 10 Cloverfield Lane

Most of 10 Cloverfield Lane is confined to the interior of the bomb shelter, which functions as a stage set for its conflicts. While the filmmakers make good use of their setting, it limits its narrative punch to what can be conveyed by its actors. In this, the filmmakers are singularly fortunate. Mary Elizabeth Winstead can carry a suspense film, and John Goodman is such a cuddly man that one forgets the sheer menace he can project in the right role. It's not for nothing that he's one of the Coen brothers' major bêtes noire. Here, he's both pathetic and frightening, often both at the same time. Winstead spends a lot of the film saying nothing, conveying her emotions with her posture or her eyes. The film gives her a limited range of emotions to play, but then relies on the actress to convey those emotions wordlessly. It's a difficult job and Winstead nails it. This is a masterclass in acting for film, because given the stagebound nature of its central narrative, this could have been a barnstormer. Instead, it insinuates and gets under the skin.

John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane

The way the roles of the characters are coded in 10 Cloverfield Lane makes this into an overtly feminist film. Howard is a patriarchal figure who has taken all choice away from those under his heel. He's a portrait of wounded masculinity groping around for his reward for being a stand-up guy. His entitlement is frightening, especially when its becomes clear that he covets Michelle in a more than fatherly way. Howard's version of a nuclear family is suffocating, destructive, ultimately murderous. It's surprising to find a resurgence of this kind of radical critique of the family structure in an era when so many horror movies are hellbent on reifying the patriarchal nuclear family. This movie is to, say, The Conjuring or The Possession as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was to The Omen.

Emmett, played John Gallagher, Jr., is sits between two poles of the film's dialectic. He's kinda sorta on Howard's side, having witnessed the film's big mysterious event first hand, but he's also on Michelle's side, chafing under Howard's "my house my rules" authority. Emmett is a fundamentally weak character, something the film makes literal in his wounded arm.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane

Conversely, Michelle is Howard's opposite: her first act is to leave a man who wants to control her, and her resistance to Howard's patriarchy forms the core of not only her character, but of the film itself. Even when the movie veers into sci-fi monsters, Michelle remains the very model of a self-rescuing damsel, one who doesn't need a man to save her, who resents the man who tries to save her for his own self-edification, and goes out and slays the fucking dragon herself. Michelle is more the daughter of Ellen Ripley than she is the daughter of Altaira Morbius. And even though the movie does provide actual monsters for her to slay, the obvious monster in the room--in the shelter, that is--is patriarchy itself.

The film's final act outside of the shelter where Michelle finds herself confronted by alien monsters bent on her extermination has an agreeable War of the Worlds feel too it. As an action set piece, it's well-planned and well executed and proof that good special effects are in the reach of even modestly budgeted films, but its main function is to keep the film's promise to the audience. We are promised monsters both in the text of the film and in its title. It may not be the Cloverfield monsters, but damned if they aren't crackerjack monsters anyway. Watching Michelle demonstrate her capability in an apocalyptic crisis--particularly in contrast to Howard's urge to bury himself away from the world, is a vindication. Ellen Ripley would be proud.

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