The institution was a very popular one. When the people gathered together on one of the great trial days, they never knew whether they were to witness a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding. This element of uncertainty lent an interest to the occasion which it could not otherwise have attained. Thus, the masses were entertained and pleased…
This quotation is from the short story “The Lady or the Tiger,” by Frank Stockton. The story is often taught to schoolchildren, as an introduction to the literary concept of narrative ambiguity. Fitting for our discussion today, it’s the tale of a violent, controlling patriarch and his daughter, a woman of indeterminate character. (Hinging as it does on whether the latter is more interested in seeing her lover mauled or married to someone else, the story is also fairly misogynist.) But what’s important is how the story’s central image of two doors in an arena endures in the popular culture. One holds death for the guilty, the other life for the innocent; but which one will be opened?
“The Lady or the Tiger” is the template for a number of movies which play with a specifically binary ambiguity. The problem is, it’s incredibly difficult to make a good version of that story (although The Innocents and Take Shelter come to mind), because the audience knows there are really only four narrative possibilities:
- It’s a lady
- It’s a tiger
- It’s a lady tiger
- It’s a goose (or, you know, whatever from totally outside the dichotomy)
This is the central gimmick of 10 Cloverfield Lane (which eventually settles on #3). We know Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a bad situation, but we don’t know if she’s facing a crazy killer lying about some kind of horrifying invasion, or if she’s alive, safe, and bored while above her the world is dead. The narration of the film (ie., how and in what order we get information and experience the story) is designed to keep vacillating on this point. At first it’s A, then still probably A, then B for a while, then A&B, then briefly A, and finally back to A&B again. That puzzle aspect of the film is executed competently, but it comes at the expense of both plot and theme–and, in the end, is ultimately too unstable to work the way it should. This is The Screening Room. Welcome.
In terms of plot, the problem is that our protagonist’s goals vacillate wildly according to her (and our) understanding of the situation. If Howard (John Goodman) is telling the truth about the surface, her goal is to pass the time and learn to get along with him. If he’s lying, though, to keep her prisoner (ala that one part of 24 Season 2) she has to escape by any means necessary. This kind of emotional whiplash is detrimental to our engagement with the movie–what we want changes so often and so rapidly that we ultimately aren’t sure what we want. We may recognize Michelle’s current motivation, but it’s hard to sympathize completely either way.
An additional problem is that the two scenarios are not equally interesting. In a vacuum, an alien invasion is far more exciting than one crazy guy, but oddly enough this is actually reversed here. If the aliens have invaded, Michelle is right where she needs to be, and her biggest problem is deciding whether to play Life or Monopoly. If Goodman is lying, she’s in impending (if not imminent) danger. And to paraphrase Scorsese, film is a matter of what’s in the frame. Liar or not, Goodman is on screen for most of the movie, embodying that side of the story in a vivid performance that delivers strong emotional weight to the idea that Howard is a troubled, dangerous person. Some off-screen noises and one brief scene with the woman outside don’t have the same impact, and as a result the movie ends up unbalanced. This only exacerbates the decision to end the movie with a sequence dealing with the invasion after Howard is dead–even as the events get more and more perilous, the structure and balance of emotional investment makes it feel like falling action. In plot terms, the bulk of the movie is reduced to set up for this sequence, with Michelle’s entire time in the bunker not really much more important than the bottle of Scotch she put in her car at the beginning of the film.
By the way, it’s amusing how the film goes to great lengths to plant that bottle–and absolutely no lengths to explain why she has an entire phone book there too.
But the other thing the film doesn’t adequately explain about that moment is how Michelle has the wherewithal to concoct and toss right in the flashing red final boss weak spot a fucking Molotov cocktail while being lifted in a car into some kind of alien spaceship/maw. There’s resourceful and then there’s this. I was reminded of You’re Next, whose basic premise is “What if a slasher didn’t realize the soon-to-be-Final Girl had extensive survival training?” But Michelle gets no such character development–even given very clear opportunities for the film to do so, as when Howard needs her to stitch up a cut. It’s a moment whose purpose is to show that there’s a needle and thread in the first aid kit (so she can use it later to sew her containment suit), but it could just as easily have told us that she had medical training. I think the fact that she doesn’t (she’s clearly never stitched up a wound before) may be deliberate, given the very end of the movie. But we’ll get back to that.
The other missing piece to Michelle comes at the very beginning of the movie. Where most films would use these opening minutes as a chance to establish her specifics, to put us in the mindset of a movie which will soon be interrupted (ie., to have Janet Leigh steal the money), 10CL essentially gives us a literal overture. Ominous score plays over a phone conversation we can’t hear, just before Michelle leaves her home and fiancée(?), Ben, behind. Again, I understand why they made that choice. It mirrors the movie as a whole: we don’t know what problem she’s facing in her relationship, just as we don’t know which situation she’s facing in the bunker. But this ambiguity has the same problem here as it does in the main plot: it’s hard to engage when you don’t have enough information. What is she running from, or to? Who is this woman? By deliberately limiting our understanding of who Michelle is at the beginning, the film limits our ability to believe it when it tells us she’s changed.
Aliens and acid vats aside, what is this movie really about? It’s an allegory about the patriarchy, played here by John Goodman. This is literal as well as metaphorical; he’s ex-military, wealthy (the bunker must have cost a mint, and at any rate within the context of the story he owns and controls all goods and living space), and another example of the “old, angry white guy” roles John Goodman seems to keep finding (for a sympathetic version of this, check out his performance in HBO’s Treme). “Patriarchy” is kind of a loaded term; if it bothers you, just understand that Howard exhibits a number of qualities here, in particular historical ownership of property (his bunker) and with that, the psuedo-parental role of being responsible for everyone’s safety. While both of these attributes are absolutely true–the bunker does belong to Howard, and he does know more about how to survive in this situation than either of his guests–they’re also reasons why Howard is able to maintain an uncomfortable strict level of control over his fellow survivors.
Unfortunately for our protagonist, Howard’s need for control asserts itself most prominently through his paternalistic, mysogynist traits. He’s possessive of Michelle, warning unexpected bunkermate Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr–Jim Harper from The Newsroom, here totally unrecognizable thanks to the foolproof disguise of beard + hat) not to touch her and exploding into a rage when she flirts with Emmett at dinner. He infantilizes her throughout, most prominently in the (slightly too on the nose) scene where the trio play Taboo and Howard is unable to think of Michelle as a woman (he offers “child” and “princess” as descriptors), but also in the way Howard treats her like a replacement for Megan, his dead daughter. That this is something he’s done before with another kidnapped woman, that it’s his pathological MO, only underlines the point. Likewise, his murder of Emmett, while fairly spontaneous, underlines his possessiveness toward Michelle, as he acknowledges it was inevitable that Emmett die so that the two of them could be together. (One possible implication is that Emmett’s unplanned presence is the only reason Howard has not done anything worse to her yet–note how Howard brings Michelle ice cream after disposing of the body and claims that there are no rules now. Of course there aren’t, because nobody’s left to watch him.)
Of course, Howard’s most important attribute, and the main gist of the movie, is that he claims to be keeping them in the bunker because of some kind of contaminant/invasion up above. This is how the patriarchy–ie., the powerful agents and beneficiaries of the social order–justify their systems of control: we need them to feed us and shelter us and provide for us and most of all protect us from that big scary world out there. In one sense, they, and Howard, are absolutely right. The world outside the bunker is dangerous, and Howard’s bunker full of food and entertainment may be just what these characters need to survive. But that still doesn’t excuse the way Howard acts toward them, like the dictator of his fancy little tinpot. It doesn’t justify his self-serving rules or his violent actions. So the question is, what are people like Michelle going to do about it? Exchange liberty for security (not to mention all the John Hughes movies on VHS)? Or face the monsters for herself?
Michelle’s character arc is her answer to that question. The problem is that, again, you can read the film two ways.
In one reading, Michelle is a woman who won’t stop running from her problems. She’s running away from her relationship problems, as guy-who-gave-her-a-wedding-ring Ben says to her on the phone, and Michelle relates a story about a time when she had a chance to help someone in trouble but fled, too frightened to face the danger. Now that she’s trapped in this bunker with nowhere to go, she’s forced to confront her problems head on, and discovers she has the resourcefulness to do so. The bunker itself is a hostile place, apparently a refuge but in actuality a deadly challenge for her to overcome. She takes on both Howard and aliens, up to the point of tossing a Molotov right in her trouble’s stupid face. Boom. But she’s still running, first metaphorically by exiting the bunker, then literally (as she runs away from an alien, then right back again to get her gas mask). At the end of the film, though, rather than running and hiding in Louisiana (as we all know, the safest place to be when a disaster hits), she turns left toward the resistance, confident that her experiences have given her the skills she needs to survive. (The radio calls for recruits who have medical or combat training; although what little we know about her indicates she has neither, Michelle seems to think that her time in the bunker counts as sufficient on-the-job experience.)
In the other reading, Michelle is a woman who struggles to connect and empathize with other people. Her relationship with Ben is in trouble and she refuses to communicate, leaving when he’s not around and not talking to him when he calls, and Michelle relates a story about a time when she knew a woman needed her help but was unwilling to provide it. Now that she’s trapped in this bunker with nowhere to go, she’s forced to interact with two men, to try to get along with them and see things from their perspective (extra tough because of Howard’s prickly personality and Michelle’s suspicion of his motives). Yet she still struggles to help others, turning away the woman outside and not speaking up when Emmett takes the heat for their deception. She even only builds one suit for the escape. The bunker itself is just another defense mechanism, walling her away from other people, although it truly is a refuge from the horrors above. Even after destroying it she’s still putting up barriers–the suit, the barn, the car, because these are necessary for her survival. But at the end of the film, rather than selfishly protecting herself, she turns left toward the resistance, finally willing to help others. (Note that the radio voice asking for help is female, just like the woman Michelle wouldn’t let into the bunker and the one she failed to stand up for in the past.)
So which is it? A or B? Is she a lady or a tiger?
I don’t know. The script is too muddled, her character too vague, the beginning of her arc too ambiguous to make any final determination between these two themes, which are at times completely incompatible. Emmett’s arc certainly doesn’t help. His backstory is about a trip he never took, how he’s never left this little area of the world because he was too afraid to test himself; but is that meant to mirror his lack of confidence against her burgeoning resourcefulness, or to contrast his willingness to trap himself with her need to escape? After Emmett dies, Michelle finds the ticket he told her about in his wallet, a potent symbol of a life’s promise unfulfilled; but is this meant to spur her to escape (to run again from her problems) or to realize how she should have prevented his death?
The end result of all of this is that the film is simply too unstable to engage us properly. In the final sequence, Michelle looks at the oncoming alien craft and says, “Oh, come on!” It’s a standard joke in this sort of film, meant to indicate how absurd it is that she’s facing yet another obstacle even after everything she’s been through. But it also points toward a potential audience reaction to the cinematic whiplash the film subjects us to yet again. To point to a different kind of plot ambiguity, at a certain point, any “will they or won’t they” romance becomes “who cares?” Sure, we’d still like for Michelle to survive, I guess, but at this point the movie is just piling twist after twist upon a shaky foundation, trying to stay ahead of the impending crash. The final collapse comes just as the audience is going, “Hey, wasn’t there supposed to be a giant monster in this movie?” Guess not. Roll credits.
I don’t think 10 Cloverfield Lane is a bad movie. Certainly it’s well-directed, well-acted, and an interesting story. But in the end there’s a limit to how well you can make a film whose premise is ambiguous–especially when that ambiguity deliberately extends to the characters and themes. I’m not sure if this “Cloverfield” brand is meant to be one continuous story (an alien invasion that began with Godzilla?) or a Halloween III: Season of the Witch-style anthology series featuring limited perspective sci-fi stories. Either way, I hope they go back to the first film’s more coherent, straightforward, and engrossing story. Or at least give us a few geese along the way.