In 10 Cloverfield Lane, a young woman named Michelle is run off the road and knocked out in a car accident. When she comes to, she finds that she is in some strange-looking dungeon-type room, there is evidence she has received medical attention including an IV in her arm, and she is chained to her bed.
Her crazy imprisoner in this Misery-like arrangement is Howard (John Goodman). He informs her that they are in his survivalist bunker under his farmhouse, and that the outside world has been more or less obliterated by some sort of attack, he’s not sure what kind (he speculates nuclear or chemical) from some enemy, he’s not sure which (he speculates Russians, but notes it could easily be extraterrestrials). He lets her know that whether she believes him or not, he will not allow her to leave.
It turns out there’s a third person in the bunker: Emmett. Emmett is kind of a simple-minded young man who at first seems to be being held there against his will like Michelle, but then it seems he’s there by choice. Howard hired him to help with the construction of the bunker, and he at least partly believes Howard. He refers to him as a “conspiracy theorist,” which in most contexts would be dismissive, but he seems to regard Howard’s worldview as mostly correct, albeit with some kooky elements he’s less sure of.
The bulk of the movie consists of these three people in this apartment-like dwelling under the farmhouse. Michelle is not chained up after that first scene in the bunker (no real explanation is offered as to why she was initially nor why she isn’t subsequently), as Howard clearly wants them to settle in for a long stay as a makeshift family. He prepares meals for them; they watch movies, listen to music, play games, etc.
Howard is clearly crazy, but working out the details of that craziness is interesting. I could speculate about that, and offer various examples or symptoms of his mental illness, but I’d probably have to give away too much of the movie in doing so, so I’ll keep that to a minimum.
John Goodman is excellent as always, by the way. I wouldn’t put this darker version of a nut on quite the level of his classic Walter in The Big Lebowski, but he’s still really good in the role.
It’s natural to assume from early on that this wild story about everyone outside the bunker being wiped out is either a lie or a sincere fantasy of Walter’s—so in either case untrue. Although he claims to have virtually no details about happened, he’s suspiciously certain that everyone’s gone and that there’s no reason to investigate. At one point he gestures toward I guess a radio or short wave radio and says there’s no signal, but it’s a perfunctory citing of evidence, especially since he never is shown actually using the radio, trying to find a signal. Nor does he go up to the top of the bunker and look out the little windows, nor get high enough near the surface where it might be possible to get a cell phone signal, nor don protective gear and venture out of the bunker.
By all appearances he’s quite happy with the present arrangement. He expresses some sympathy—sincere or not—towards Michelle’s wishing there was still a world up there to return to, but he seems to have no such wish of his own.
But then as things develop, it turns out there is evidence that something apocalyptic may indeed be happening outside the bunker. Emmett was at least strongly leaning toward believing that all along, but eventually Michelle too finds herself taking the possibility a lot more seriously.
Not that Howard isn’t crazy. The evidence for that is overwhelming. But there’s a chance that by coincidence there’s something going on that actually matches one of his wild conspiracy theories.
Among the most interesting scenes are some where one of the people must decide whether to trust one of the others and leave themselves vulnerable. I know that sounds vague, but I’ll give one example, again not wanting to give away too many specifics.
On one occasion they hear some noises above them and Howard says the air filtration system has stopped working and must be restarted. Unfortunately the access to the unit is somehow jammed, he says, leaving the only way to get at it to crawl through an air duct. Michelle is the only one of them who is small enough to fit (barely) so he says she’ll have to be the one to restart it.
If she does as she’s told, she’ll be putting herself in this tiny, tiny little passageway where she can’t turn around and can barely move, trusting that he’s not simply going to lock her up there or otherwise do something terrible to her when she’s completely unable to defend herself. (This is not a scene, and perhaps not a movie, that I’d recommend for anyone with serious claustrophobia issues. In fact, it’s the scene that bothered me the most.) If she refuses, then there’s the risk that he’s telling the truth about the air filtration system and they’ll all soon die. Not to mention, if she refuses then she’s basically calling him a liar, which could set him off in any kind of unpredictable, but bad, way, and undo whatever progress she’s made in getting him to let his guard down by pretending to go along with his plan for them all to be a happy little family in here indefinitely.
But anyway, there’s a lot to speculate about as you watch them interact. There’s obviously the matter of what is going on outside, and if it’s anything like what Howard so confidently claims. But beyond that, will Emmett prove to be an ally of Michelle’s in her efforts to escape, or is he secretly a confederate of Howard’s? Has the evidence of some kind of chaos going on outside been somehow manufactured by Howard? Has he held other people captive down in this bunker before? Whatever happened to his own family? (He makes occasional vague references to a “Megan” who at first sounds like a wife or girlfriend but later he claims is his daughter, but is she even real?)
One thing that occurred to me is that if I were in Michelle’s shoes I’d seek to draw Howard out a lot more about what he thinks is going on and why. If there really is anything to what he’s saying, presumably you’d want to know what his evidence is. If not, you at least could get more evidence as to his mental illness and delusions which might help you in figuring out how to escape from him or what to expect from him in the future. Plus, by conversing with him on this topic as if he’s the one in a position to know, you’re kind of showing him respect or flattering him, and thereby hopefully making him more favorably disposed toward you and giving you a better shot when he later makes decisions about whether to rape you, kill you, let you go, or whatever.
In the end, most of the answers to what’s going on are revealed. Not in any great detail certainly, but at least the movie doesn’t just leave you hanging by not resolving anything.
In reading reviews from critics and viewers, I see that although the movie is mostly assessed favorably overall, many people hate the surprise plot twist at the end that provides most of the resolution.
I can’t really say much about what I think of the ending without giving it away, so I’ll just say that I have mixed feelings about it in general. I can certainly see why people hate it, because part of me agrees, but another part of me thinks it’s kind of interesting, or at least tolerable.
But although I’m on the fence about that final sequence on the whole, there are specifics in it—lame action movie clichés—that really are ridiculous.
A big factor that adversely affected my experience of 10 Cloverfield Lane is that I saw Room—also about a woman being held captive by a crazy man—just a few months earlier, and Room absolutely blows it away. Room is much more realistic, much more psychologically insightful and fascinating, and much more emotionally powerful.
I think, though, that that’s because Room is excellent rather than because 10 Cloverfield Lane is bad. There’s some decent suspense in 10 Cloverfield Lane, and plenty of interesting angles to consider, plus Goodman is fascinatingly creepy. I suspect it’s above average as conventional horror movies go; for now it just feels somewhat lower in quality than that to me after seeing Room.