Doubt and Skepticism at 10 Cloverfield Lane

March 16, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane begins with what appears to be yet another tiresome woman-in-peril premise so common in the low-budget horror genre, but soon gets much more interesting. A young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her apartment during a blackout, ignoring calls from her boyfriend with whom she’s just fought. She is knocked unconscious in a car accident and wakes up in a concrete room which she soon learns is part of an underground bunker prepared by Howard (John Goodman) a conspiracy theorist and survivalist who spent years building the shelter for just such a disaster.

What exactly is that disaster? It’s not clear. Maybe a Russian attack, maybe Martians, maybe domestic terrorism, or rabbits turned rabid by GMO lettuce. Howard isn’t sure, but he is sure that the surface is toxic and that allowing Michelle to leave would threaten them both (along with a third person named Emmett). Michelle, terrified and confused, wants to escape but what’s above may (or may not) be far worse than what’s below.

10 Cloverfield Lane, like other effective thrillers such as Cape Fear, Jacob’s Ladder, Bug, and Frailty, trades on ambiguity. Without a clear anchor about what’s going on–and with equally plausible alternative explanations at hand–the characters and audience are left uneasy. Personal boundaries are pushed, but is it malicious or unintentional? Is Howard a savior or a psycho? Or neither, or both? Is it all a huge hoax, and if so, whose side is Emmett on?

One of the film’s most effective themes is essentially a skeptical one: the uncertainty of knowledge. How do we know what’s true? Without direct, personal access to independently verifiable information about our circumstances, how do we know what’s right, what course of action to take to help ourselves or others? Prevented from leaving, Michelle is forced to comprehend her circumstances by assembling what scraps of information she can glean from Howard, who is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. Most of what he tells her is unverifiable since of course she can’t go to the surface to check for herself. And even if she could, how would she know? The presumed danger–perhaps radiation or environmental toxins–is invisible; just as drinking from a clear contaminated stream can kill you, a glimpse outside of an otherwise ordinary pastoral country day doesn’t necessarily reveal its dangers.

The film subtly turns the tables on our allegiances, for example when Michelle finds what appears to be a clue suggesting that Howard may have had something to do with a missing young woman. A bloody earring is found in the bunker which Michelle assumes implicates Howard, but in fact she is engaging in exactly the same sort of conspiracy theory thinking that made her (and the audience) uneasy earlier. Howard, after all, can’t be expected to necessarily know for certain what’s going on above. In the days (and sometimes even weeks) after catastrophes and terrorist attacks there’s often widespread confusion, rumor, and misinformation about what’s going on. Yes, Howard’s outlandish theories are stitched together based on speculation, dubious assumptions, and ambiguous, fragmentary information–but so are Michelle’s.

Put another way, is believing that a person murdered someone you know nothing about (including whether the presumed victim even existed) based on nothing more than a bloody earring really any more reasonable than believing that the world above has been overrun by mutants, aliens, Russians, or zombies? As comforting as it is to think that our own beliefs, biases, and perceptions are legitimate–while those of others are dubious and unreasonable–we are all biased by our own worldviews; we all see what we want to see.

10 Cloverfield Lane is one of those films–like most of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies–in which the less you know about the story, the more effective it is. The film has the conspiracy-soaked, puzzle-within-a-puzzle tone of the 2004-2010 TV series Lost, which is not surprising since director J.J. Abrams was deeply involved in both (as one of the producers of this film). All the actors are very good, especially Goodman, who perfectly strikes a creepy and ambiguous balance between benevolent protector and scary psychopath.

10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t entirely succeed in fulfilling its twisty potential; there are more than a few unexplained plot holes (including a notable lack of effort to scan radio waves for news from the outside world, and why Howard would voluntarily bring others into his bunker, thereby reducing his limited food and water supply by two-thirds). The final act is a bit of a muddled letdown, but overall 10 Cloverfield Lane is worth a visit.