‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ dissects nuclear family, then goes nuclear

by Andrew Kingsley | 4/4/16 5:17pm

After the success of the hand-held, alien invasion blockbuster “Cloverfield” in 2008, producer J. J. Abrams shaped its blood relative “10 Cloverfield Lane” (2016) to exist in the same apocalyptic universe. But the film seems patently devoid of aliens; rather they are a backdrop or suggestion, and what we get instead is a tight, chamber thriller in which alienation becomes the central horror.

The film begins with the promise of “Psycho” (1960) or “The Shining” (1980), as we alternate between close-ups and aerial shots of Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) driving to or away from something. A violent car crash soon finds her in a Saw-esque cell handcuffed to a pipe, awakening to the paranoiac delirium of her isolation. In walks Howard (John Goodman), her savior and captor, a Navy Seal turned Doomsday prophet (classic!) who has built the bunker anticipating the above ground apocalypse.

While Howard dreams of recreating his romantic vision of the nuclear family equipped with board games, old VHS movies and family dinners, Michelle and her fellow captor/rescue Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), must escape this hellish ark.

But the mystery of what lurks outside is as confounding as Howard himself. The only window displays a tranquil farmscape. Yet our steadfast disbelief in Howard’s alien invasion theory weakens after a desperate woman with eroded skin begs to enter the bunker. Perhaps the air really is contaminated and the radio waves are truly empty. Sounds of cars and helicopters hovering above only complicate the world’s surface reality. By manipulating and obscuring reality so successfully, the film forces us to forfeit our rationality; our cogs stop turning and justifying, and we must simply watch the climax in confounded anxiety. Rarely does a thriller achieve such a surrender.

However, the unsettling manipulation of familial structures may be the film’s greatest asset. Howard could be a pedophile, murderer or simply a misunderstood father, yet his drive to form Michelle into the image of his lost daughter recalls “Eyes Without a Face” (1960) in its quasi-incestuous perversity. A bowl of ice cream, a game of “Taboo” and a t-shirt all become markers of Howard’s “little princess” complex, and Michelle quickly becomes his prized doll. It’s a miracle he doesn’t tuck her in at night. Goodman artfully portrays the volatile patriarch, whose moments of survivalist clarity are belied by his unsettling reversions to “daddy.” And perhaps in their performance of family — the dinners, the movies, the puzzles — these hostages deconstruct the fantasy image that is the “nuclear family” to reveal its very fabrication. Director Dan Trachtenberg thus hones the Sartrean thesis: family is hell.

Inevitably, the kids must leave the nest — but not without a fight. Kudos to Trachtenberg for crafting such an original escape scene, as a barrel of perchloric acid, a shower curtain hazmat suit and an air-duct pursuit all come together to form one delirious death march. Perhaps this is all an extreme allegorization of parents’ anxiety surrounding their children leaving home. Howard may just be the ultimate helicopter parent. If only this were the truth. The conclusion becomes silly, and Michelle’s “Oh come on!” at what she encounters perhaps is aimed at Trachtenberg himself for his lack of imagination and disavowal of the audience’s own. If only the film weren’t handcuffed to the “Cloverfield” pipeline. But that’s marketing, and a sequel will surely be invading theaters soon.

Rating: 8/10

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is now playing at the Nugget Theater in Hanover at 4:20 p.m. and 6:50 p.m.

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