By Ron Blum
Horror films give me nightmares—I couldn’t sleep for weeks after watching The Blair Witch Project¸ the last image etched in my mind as I lay awake at night, an unnamed dread pouring through my body. But I can’t resist John Goodman’s everyman, who always makes me grin—middle-class husband on Roseanne, Republican senator on Alpha House, and now bunker-building survivalist. I’m also a sucker for anything producer J.J. Abrams touches. Despite 10 Cloverfield Lane being more horror/thriller than science fiction, his trademark playfulness negated the worst of the horror—an antidote to the onslaught of nightmares. I imagine director Dan Trachtenberg had a role in that, too.
Basic story: Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) gets in a car crash and wakes up in Howard’s (Goodman) underground bunker. He informs Michelle that the area has been attacked by an unknown foe, and it’s unsafe to go outside. Along with a third survivor, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), they build a life in the bunker, but Michelle begins to doubt Howard’s story—is he her savior or captor?
It would have been easy for Winstead to portray the hapless victim, crying and screaming her way through the film as she struggles to find out whether she’s been saved or kidnapped. However, the only scene with anything close to crying is more Misery than Friday the 13th, when Michelle first discovers her plight, her broken leg chained to the wall; it starts with her suffering and culminates in her grit, control, and MacGyver-like skills.
Michelle’s leg starts to heal, time in the bunker passes, and the three residents develop a quasi-normal household complete with kitchen, dining room, and den. Gender roles are upended: it is Howard who cooks, Emmett who talks about his feelings, and serious Michelle who observes. It’s the end of the world, and we wonder: with two men and one woman trapped alone, which of the men will end up with the woman? Will they fight over her? Will she have any choice?
That’s not how the drama plays out. There won’t be a battle of sexual dominance—instead, the trio settles into the role of family. They are parent, sister, and brother. In fact, when Michelle wants to see the outside world and confirm that it’s under attack, she briefly and intentionally upsets the family dynamic by flirting with Emmett in order to send Howard into a rage. The female isn’t a sex object, the victim of a sex-hungry male captor and audience (so far). She is also cool-headed, the only one who stays in control while the men either talk anxiously or lose their cool. Here in the bunker, Michelle is the only one who maintains her composure—the woman is least likely to break down and cry.
It’s not that women are strong and men are weak—this isn’t about flipping roles and female superiority. Sexist assumptions are subverted, and personal characteristics are cast as differences between three individuals, without regard to gender. Their motivation and history may be impacted by it, but not their personality. Howard has technically chosen Michelle because she is female for the purposes of the story, which leads to the unfolding of captor vs. savior. However, Michelle’s behavior and actions are independent of gender. She doesn’t conform to stereotypes, and for the most part neither do Howard and Emmett—imagine, for the most part, Goodman replaced by Kathy Bates.
We first get a hint of the egalitarian behavior at the start of the film, when Michelle leaves her husband—voiced by Bradley Cooper, never seen. He calls her when she’s on the road, and she reluctantly answers, never saying a word. He begs and pleads while she listens, her face conveying the seriousness that it will maintain for the rest of the film, rarely cracking a smile. She’s neither cruel nor distraught—she doesn’t break down and doesn’t respond to his pleas. She never sheds a tear but she’s not heartless—she listens and lets him talk. But she’s allowed to be detached, and that’s unusual for a sympathetic straight female character. Straight men are permitted to be detached. We expect male heroes to play it cool and utter few words while the women who love them—whose hearts will ultimately be broken—are overflowing with words and emotion. Here, the roles are reversed: Ben’s emotions flow over while Michelle is silent and stoic, with detached resolve. She is focused on the road and her mission.
She happens to be a woman. She’s gets to play it cool because she’s going to be the hero.