This article carries a strong trigger warning because it contains vivid and extensive details of an abusive relationship and abuse more generally. I will also put a spoiler warning here, as I discuss most of the movie’s plot.
10 Cloverfield Lane is about abuse. Not an abusive relationship, although it includes that. More potently, director Dan Trachtenberg connects several arcs, details, and backstories to form a complex metaphor (and, at times, a simple depiction) that shows the mix of terror and monotony victims face. I’m talking about the film’s protagonist, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and I’m mostly talking about her relationship to the primary antagonist, Howard Stambler (John Goodman). But 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s theme of the horror of abuse goes beyond that.
If this movie were just about the relationship between Michelle and Howard, then the first and last ten minutes of 10 Cloverfield Lane would be pointless. But, of course, they aren’t. In the introduction, Michelle hurriedly packs up her things, removes her engagement ring, and leaves her home. She drives, later receiving a phone call from her now-ex-fiance, Ben (Bradley Cooper, in a voice cameo). His voice fills her with dread, or at least silence, as he explains to her that they just had a small fight; that couples argue; that it’s not a big deal; that she can’t just pack up and leave over it. Alone, this would perhaps imply that Michelle is impulsive, although it’s hard to imagine a relationship progressing so far only to end over something supposedly “small.” She says nothing to Ben, and he navigates how to win her over. She hangs up, though, and before she can answer his next call, her vehicle spins out and crashes. When she wakes up, she’s chained to a wall, injured, in a dark cellar.
Her initial reaction is unsurprising: she panics, pulling at the chain and surveying her concrete surroundings. Her next reaction, though, is unusual for a film: she looks at the chain and cries, rendered silent. After just moments of frantic alarm, her fight-or-flight response abates so that she can handle the fact that she’s trapped. Why, though? I’m not asking why someone would be sad that they’re chained to a wall in a dark cellar. Who wouldn’t be? But why does her panic so quickly move aside for depression, when Michelle’s responses throughout the film will mostly be sharp, ingenuous, and resourceful?
The introduction comes into sharp focus. Michelle just escaped one cage only to wake up in another. This character-unique emotional reaction, the seemingly extraneous detail of her relationship to the rest of the film, and the celebrity voice cameo all point to these first ten minutes and say, “Look closer.” Why might immobility override someone’s fight-or-flight response at the sight of a chain when her fiance just implied she’s rash and impulsive? The obvious answer is that this wasn’t a small fight, and her relationship wasn’t just fine. She escaped that relationship, and so this new chain and its implications surpass fear and reach deep despondency.
The details and implications of that previous cage, though, are uncertain at this moment. They’re revealed through a different relationship, the one between Michelle and Howard, her new captor. At first, he expresses concern over her health and safety, as he explains the crash he witnessed. But when she portrays skepticism or hostility at him for chaining her to a wall, Howard’s response isn’t quite right. He says he deserves respect. When she asks to call her family, he tells her the world has been destroyed, and everyone she loves is gone. She can’t tell them she’s okay. Of course, Michelle doesn’t accept this at face value. The attempt at social isolation is merely a function of the chain. When Howard is gone, she uses the few items available to her to plot an escape. It fails, but her capability and resourcefulness are clear. It’s not a matter of if she’ll try to escape, but when and how.
The tension and pressing nature of her escape lessen slightly as she’s allowed out of the room and into the rest of the building, a fallout shelter. Doubt even enters her mind when Howard shows her two rotting pig carcasses through a small window, as he explains that whatever happened is probably chemical warfare. Michelle also meets Emmet DeWitt (John Gallagher, Jr.), a kind country boy that agrees with Howard about the state of the outside world. He contrasts Howard’s clear instability and lurking rage. The characters’ personalities come to the fore at the new “family’s” first dinner. Emmet makes small talk, garnering a giggle from Michelle, but Howard’s reaction is negative and visible. He slams his hand on the table, tells Emmet, “Your humor isn’t funny”—despite the fact that it’s funny to two-thirds of the present company—and demands silence.
Michelle, though, has seen Howard’s keys in this exchange, and goads him to attempt some sleight of hand. She flirts openly with Emmet, touching his hand softly, which pushes Howard to rage. He sits up, forces her into a corner, and screams in her face. What did she think she was doing there? Does she think Howard’s an idiot? He demands she behave—”I will,” she says insufficiently, as he demands she say “I will behave” in full, like a child—and then has the gall to ask what’s wrong once they’re all seated again. Unbeknownst to him, though, she grabbed his keys in this exchange. Her thriftiness shows again.
In perhaps the tensest scene put to film in recent years, Michelle smashes a bottle over Howard’s head and makes a run for the stairs, which leads to a pseudo-airlock contained by two thick metal doors. She locks Howard in the shelter as he screams through the small window, and she fumbles with the lock for the other door that leads outside. She looks through her door’s window and sees a car with its lights on, which means Howard must have been lying. As he screams that she’ll get them all killed if she opens the door, though, a woman appears at the window. She needs help, she says, which is clearly true. Half of her skin has dissolved. While Michelle can’t bear to leave this woman out there, she remembers Howard’s claim. Sure, he’s unarguably abusive and controlling, but he might also be right about that world out there. The woman outside calls Michelle a “bitch” and smashes her head against the wall. Michelle goes back to the shelter.
Bizarrely, though, Howard is calm. He doesn’t need to yell here, because he knows she believes him. She won’t try to leave. In fact, he’s nice to her, offering her some home-distilled vodka and asking her to stitch up his fresh head-wound. Howard even tells Michelle about his daughter, Megan, sharing a picture as he explains that Megan’s mother turned her against him. Perhaps Michelle reminds him of Megan, as he clearly doesn’t see her as a woman. After all, when they play a word-guessing game, Emmet tries to get Howard to say “woman” by saying, “Michelle is a….” When “girl” and “child” don’t work, Emmet asks for the grown-up version of those words, and Howard says with confidence, “Princess.” The connection Howard draws, subconsciously or not, is clear.
Is any of this starting to sound familiar? The control, the social isolation, the abuse followed by kindness, the jealousy, the manipulation: they’re classic symptoms of an abusive relationship. Howard uses bits of truth to convince Michelle that she can’t leave and insulates her from the outside, even though it is later revealed to be relatively safe. Suddenly, her relationship to Ben and those opening scenes come into sharp focus. She just escaped an abusive relationship, only to end up in a new one. Even teen dramas recognize “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” behavior, where kindness or minimization follow an instance of abuse, and Howard’s use of this technique makes us question Ben’s coercive civility over the phone. Ben wasn’t calling Michelle out for overreacting. He was trying to convince her that she’s being unreasonable for leaving him.
Howard, of course, embodies the concept of an abuser. Consider this list of warning signs and red flags from the National Domestic Violence Hotline, namely under the “Emotional Abuse” tab. He doesn’t trust her and acts jealous/possessive (he won’t even let her go to the bathroom with the door closed, no less have mild privacy with Emmet). He isolates her from friends and family; he threatens her; he damages property when angry; he habitually blames others for his problems (Megan’s mother); he assures Michelle that she’s lucky to have him. When combined with physical intimidation and later explicit physical abuse, it’s hard to ignore how many boxes Howard’s character checks. When viewed in relationship to our introduction to Michelle, the purpose is undeniable. The only major box not ticked is past abuse of others, but Trachtenberg doesn’t wait for long to check that one as well.
When the ventilation system starts to fail, Michelle has to climb through the air ducts to the hidden room. She sees the word “HELP” scratched on the inside of a small window to another (locked) door that leads outside. She also finds a set of bloody earrings. Chances are a DNA test would match the blood to that trickling from the word “HELP.” When she shows Emmet the picture of Megan, he recognizes her. Her name was Brittany, and she went missing years back. She’s wearing the same pair of earrings as the ones Michelle found, and if any doubt remains, they find another picture of Howard smiling and Brittany looking…frightened, yes, but also defeated. Unsurprisingly, they’re in the shelter. Apparently, it has long doubled as a prison for kidnapping and abuse.
Michelle and Emmet plan their escape, working together to make gas masks and protective suits. They bond, not through abusive tactics but through shared hardships and a recognition of each others’ abilities. Emmet can disarm suspicion and grab supplies. Michelle can return to her dream of designing clothes, albeit in an undesirable context. Their relationship is based on trust and embracing Michelle’s interests outside of the shelter, a basis that runs counter to her and Howard’s. When the two sit in their rooms on opposite sides of a cellar wall, the camera removes the barrier and allows them to share private memories. Emmet sabotaged his chances to go to college because he didn’t want to leave his bubble in rural Louisiana. Michelle saw a father pulling on his daughter’s arm—”too hard,” Michelle notes—and wanted to do something. Her father was abusive, the viewer learns, and her brother always took the brunt of the abuse for her. But Michelle didn’t help the girl. She ran. Emmet listens to this, and soon demonstrates that he heard what she was telling him through this story, much as the director wants us to hear what Michelle’s story tells the audience though this film.
The biggest turn in the story occurs when Michelle and Emmet are most (non-sexually) intimate. Howard has them move and open a vat of corrosive acid, as he explains that he discovered the scissors and duck tape. He wants to know what’s been going on between them, he says, as the scissors and tape dissolve. Emmet, perhaps remembering Michelle’s story, assumes the blame. He tells Howard that he was building a weapon to steal Howard’s gun, not to hurt Howard but to gain Michelle’s respect. This appeases Howard, who accepts the apology in earnest, and then shoots Emmet in the head. He feigns concern that Emmet would hurt him, but it’s clear that this is another social isolation tactic. When he senses a challenge to his singular control over Michelle, he eliminates it. Emmet’s character is constructed with the simplicity of a secondary character but featured as commonly as the others, and this design is purposeful. He’s a stand-in for every social relation Michelle could have, and Howard is the abuser that severs the ties.
Michelle, ever resourceful, plans her escape. For the third time, she makes use of her surroundings, a skill she likely learned by surviving an abusive childhood followed by an abusive relationship and then engagement. The visceral horror of Emmet’s murder, though, leaves no option besides escape, and when Howard corners her, Michelle kicks over the barrel of acid in his direction. Howard’s resultant deformity reflects the woman from outside in the earlier scene, and here the film connects the monsters Howard perceived to be outside and Howard himself. He is the very monstrosity from which he said he would protect her. 10 Cloverfield Lane echoes a classic monster movie as Michelle runs from the stalking beast, as Howard has become animalistic. He cannot let her escape, because then she would be free from him.
Michelle escapes her abuser, but her escape from abuse doesn’t end here. In a strange turn, Howard’s conspiracy theory turns out to be true. Aliens have invaded, and are eliminating human life with poisonous gases and weaponry. This once again reflects how abusers distort truths to manipulate, but also points out that Michelle’s world will never be the same. Despite the unpleasantness of this discovery, Michelle reacts not with panic or depression, but annoyance, bordering on “You gotta be kidding me.” She once again demonstrates her uncanny brilliance by destroying a giant alien monster/spaceship hybrid. After her victory, she hops in a car and turns on the radio to learn that there are other humans still alive. The language the film uses is specific, though: there are other survivors. Survivors who are fighting back from a safe zone they made in Houston. And of course, Michelle turns toward Texas and drives, as the music emphasizes her triumphant decision to work with others and fight another oppressive force. Instead of going to Baton Rouge (and thus staying in Louisiana), she escapes, on her own terms. She survives.
Howard is an archetypal abuser, and his monstrous behavior acts as the central metaphor and horror of 10 Cloverfield Lane. He embodies the type of person Michelle has dealt with all her life, but despite his attempts to exert power and control, she defeats him. She overcomes Howard, she overcomes an entire alien monster/spaceship, and then she goes to keep fighting with other survivors. The scenes where Michelle sits in tension—violence only a heartbeat away—put the viewer in her situation, but the film as a whole does not limit her to being a victim. It shows how powerful she is because of and despite the abuse she has faced her entire life, and it shows how she escapes to work with other survivors and build a better future. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a story of abuse, but even more potently, it’s a story of resistance, and by using one of the oldest pages in the sci-fi book, it shows how monumental and difficult resistance is without portraying it as impossible. As distressing and relentless as 10 Cloverfield Lane is, it’s ultimately a story about hope. Whether that’s hope to escape, hope for a better future, or hope for a sequel is up to you.