The article contains spoilers for 10 Cloverfield Lane.
For most of us, home is more of an abstract and idealistic concept than a geographical location. Home is our place of rest, the place for which we feel the most tenderness and love. It’s where we recharge our batteries and make many of our best memories. But home can also be toxic. It can be corrupted by abuse and neglect. Happy homes can become prison cells. In many ways, Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is an allegory for domestic abuse both physical and emotional. It’s a look at the way assumed debts and unsolicited generosity can trap people in relationships and override their sense of personal agency. It’s about the way an abuser can expertly walk the line between good and evil, giving the victim a false sense of security while slowly chipping away at what used to make them human. There are monsters in 10 Cloverfield Lane, but they’re not all scales and teeth. They’re also the internal demons we face when we decide to make a better life for ourselves, to recognize a bad situation for what it is and be willing to pay the ultimate cost to make it right.
Michelle’s failed engagement feels like a basic narrative conceit at first, just a low-stakes way to get her in the car and on the road. But once we get a feel for the bunker and its owner, it becomes clear that she’s traded one claustrophobic domestic deathtrap for another. The place is plush and cozy; it wouldn’t be surprising if Howard was living down here before the attack. Regardless, it’s more than enough to provide the kind of nuclear stability that he craves and Michelle rebels against. We learn later that she’s made a habit of running away from the big problems, which, when combined with the opening scene, makes it seem as though this is the exact situation she was trying to avoid in the first place. Some facet of her relationship was choking and constricting her, and now she’s trapped underground with nothing but board games and old magazines. Now she’s trapped with a wacky redneck brother and a creepy dad who won’t even cut the umbilical long enough to let her go pee. She doesn’t just spend the entire first act coming up with new ways to escape because she’s a badass; she’s also following an internal instinct to resist this kind of familial dynamic.
But again, he’s walking a thin line between affection and exploitation. The film draws clear parallels with the real-life emotional torment people face in abusive relationships. At one point, the air filtration system dies and Michelle is forced to crawl into the ducts and sort things out before they all suffocate. It’s such great symbolism, so evocative of the way people sometimes feel trapped in their own homes. Howard celebrates their success by playing “Tell Him” by The Exciters: “Tell him that you’re never gonna leave him. Tell him that you’re always gonna love him.” In light of the bloody evidence Michelle has just found, the song provokes a sense of sinking dread and makes Howard’s genuine elation all the more frightening. He was afraid to lose Michelle like he lost the others, but now he’s back in control. She’s his little girl again (think of the charades scene). Her suspicions are confirmed near the end of the film, when he discovers the biohazard suit she made for her escape. Note how patient he is with their bumbling excuses until Emmett says he wanted Michelle’s respect. Note how dead Emmett suddenly becomes after that.