I was a big fan of 10 Cloverfield Lane; it was Room with a sci-fi bent, and while there was a big alien invasion in the end, the themes of both films were similar, only they were illustrated more literally in Room and more metaphorically in Cloverfield Lane. It was that genre jump in the end of the latter, however, that soured me slightly on the film. After spending much of the movie trapped in a safe house convinced that the outside world had gone to hell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s finally escaped her captor (John Goodman) only to discover that the outside world was not quite what Goodman’s character had suggested. But he wasn’t wrong, either. The world had gone to shit, and aliens were using a poisonous gas to kill off the human race.
It’s that ending that gave some viewers, including myself, pause. It was a great, tense and thrilling film about escaping a bomb shelter for 90 minutes, and for the last 15 minutes, it was suddenly an alien invasion film. It felt tacked-on and unnecessary, but as director Dan Trachtenberg explains, the ending was actually metaphor suggesting that domestic abuse does not stop once the victim escapes the abuser.
10 Cloverfield Lane is fundamentally about domestic abuse. Howard is a classic abuser, to such a degree that his actions run down a straight checklist of common tactics and warning signs. From his first moments with Michelle, he’s more interested in controlling her than comforting her. He has no empathy for her, or understanding of what’s going on in her head. He threatens her with violence when she disobeys his arbitrary rules, then seems baffled a moment later about why she’s upset. He’s jealous and volatile. He terrifies her, then blames her for hurting his feelings by not showing him enough gratitude and respect. He isolates her from her friends and family, both physically, by locking her into the bunker, and emotionally, by repeatedly claiming they’re all dead and there’s no way to even attempt to contact them. …
When Michelle escapes the bunker and finds a new threat waiting, this is partially an extension of the abuse metaphor. For victims of domestic abuse, just getting out of the house doesn’t immediately solve all their problems. For the metaphor to stay sound, 10 Cloverfield Lane needs to acknowledge that finding the courage to leave an abuser doesn’t guarantee a happily-ever-after. For a moment, when Michelle first removes her makeshift gas mask and learns that Howard was wrong about the poisonous air, it seems like the movie might end on a note of relief, and the promise that her problems are over. But that would be facile, and would also mean that Michelle had been in a standard slasher movie, where arbitrarily bad things happen to random people, and nothing much is learned. And that wouldn’t be in keeping with the movie’s actual arc, which is all about the way Michelle comes to terms with her abuse. Michelle’s problems didn’t start with Howard, and they don’t end with him. They aren’t imaginary, like the toxic threat, and they aren’t just part of some vague general calamity. They’re specific and personal, and they require a specific, personal catharsis. And that’s the primary reason the big, direct confrontation is necessary in the final act.
That makes sense, although it may have unduly stretched the metaphor. Obviously escaping one’s abuser doesn’t make everything better — see Room, for instance, which intensely explored the aftermath of this kind of situation — but it’s typically not the equivalent of a world-ending alien invasion event, either. Granted, the ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane was more thrilling and adventurous than the ending of Room, but it came at the cost of an otherwise splendidly harrowing and intense storyline grounded in reality.