***Warning: Analysis contains film spoilers
In 10 Cloverfield Lane we are introduced to Howard (John Goodman), a supposed survivalist who has been seemingly preparing for a nuclear, possibly alien attack his entire life. His has a fully stocked underground bunker that includes a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, dining area, and even an entertainment area. This bunker is ventilated and has access to drinkable water. It is suggested that Howard has prepared for years, possibly decades, for the event of an attack on either America or just Earth in general. Nearly the entirety of 10 Cloverfield Lane occurs in this bunker when the film’s protagonist, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is in a horrific car accident and wakes up in this bunker with Howard, who informs her there has been an “attack” and they cannot leave. Also in the bunker is Emmett (John Gallgher Jr.), whose presence in this bunker is, to say the least, very ambiguous. Nonetheless, Howard’s claims of an attack are accurate and the bunker, for a time, is safe. What ultimately becomes unsafe is Howard himself, who clearly becomes unhinged by the circumstances that are occurring…or was he always unhinged?
On the surface it seems that Howard’s paranoia has transitioned to insanity, but there is more complexity in regards to the psychology of Howard. While the story behind the bunker’s construction is convenient, there is an abundance of evidence throughout the film that strongly suggests that this bunker wasn’t actually built for survival. In fact, this bunker was built for the purposes of being, as I like to call it, a “storage apartment” for female victims of Howard’s. Therefore, Howard’s descent into insanity was not due to his paranoia. It can be deduced that Howard is, in fact, a serial killer.
The evidence of Howard’s homicidal life is heavily hinted through his explanation to Michelle of his supposed daughter, Megan. Near the beginning of the film Howard occasionally reminisces, only to Michelle, about his daughter who was, according to him, taken from him by her mother. What is particularly interesting in these moments is how Howard indirectly informs Michelle that she will essentially become Megan over time. “Megan was a good cook. You’ll learn to love cooking,” Howard directly informs Michelle at one point of the film. This one instance is a telling moment in the film that seems to indicate that Howard intends to have Michelle emulate Megan, essentially expecting her to conform and embody to what Megan supposedly liked to do.
The viewer is given enough information to know that Megan, at least the girl’s photo Howard shows Michelle, is not his daughter. He claims she is, but there is no doubt that she is of no relation to him. The biggest indicator is Emmett’s revelation that the girl’s picture is of a former classmate of his named Brittany, who went missing months back. This begs the question, is Megan even a real person? Everything Howard has indicated about Megan has been linked to the photograph. It is highly speculative that he has never had a daughter and has forced his perception of fatherhood on innocent girls who were likely murdered over time.
While Emmett and Michelle adequately respond to this information by scheming to escape the bunker, the film deliberately veers away from asking the probing question, why was Megan in this bunker? The answer is obvious enough that she was abducted by Howard. In one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, Michelle discovers a locked hatch door. On the translucent window is the etched letters P-L-E-H. Help. The words are frightening enough, but the presence of blood in the etching of the last two letters strongly suggests there was a person, maybe Megan, desperately trying to escape this imaginary world that has been inflicted on her by an insane individual. Brittney, seen as Megan to Howard, was a prisoner. More frightening is the likely reality that Howard saw this plea for help and dispensed of his “daughter” he could no longer control.
How does this relate to Michelle? It does more than one realizes. Howard’s truck crashing into Michelle’s car at the beginning of the film was no mere “accident” as Howard describes it. As he tells Michelle, he was frantic to get back home when the alien attack occurred and he accidentally crashed her car off of the road. On the surface, this seems logical. But should we take this at face value? When you consider the blatant lie about Megan, it puts anything into question regarding Howard. Let’s start with the striking similarities in appearance between Michelle and Megan: Similar age, hair color, innocent demeanor, body type. Howard even offers Michelle the very same clothes Megan was wearing in the picture, which of course, fit her perfectly. She was a target. She fit the criteria to be the next Megan.
In fact, the film heavily hints that she is a chosen victim right at the onset of the film. The film opens with Michelle deciding to leave her boyfriend, hastily leaving New York City for the country. The film provides viewers with wide aerial shots of her driving in the country, insinuating how utterly isolated Michelle is as she is speeding away from her life. The film then cuts to Michelle at a gas station filling up her car at the pump. In this brief moment, we see her become illuminated in the bright lights of another vehicle. This is a fleeting moment, but surprisingly integral to the basic format of the movie. When one listens to the sound of the vehicle whose lights at pointed at Michelle, it is plainly obvious that it is the sound of a truck. Furthermore, the lights remained trained on Michelle in a awkward, almost uncomfortable manner. It can be easily deduced that the person in that vehicle is Howard and he has “discovered” his next Megan. The car accident was no accident, but a deliberate act to abduct his next victim. The irony is that the alien attack occurred while the abduction was in progress, forcing Howard to escape to the very bunker he planned to imprison his latest victim.
Here comes the one thing Howard didn’t expect: Emmett. Howard’s antagonism towards Emmett is clear right from the character’s introduction. Howard despises Emmett, clearly doesn’t want him there. Why? There are two possibilities with Emmett. The first scenario is that he’s actually an accomplice of Howard’s and has also been participating with Howard over the years in the abduction and deaths of many young girls. This doesn’t seem to be too likely given Howard’s disdain for him. The more probable scenario is that Emmett was telling Michelle the truth when he informed her that he had helped Howard build the bunker and was aware of its existence. Emmett’s truthfulness is further emphasized with a story he tells Michelle of buying a bus ticket to leave the area, but became terrified of change and deliberately sabotaged himself to miss the bus. Near the climax of the film Michelle discovers that bus ticket, which directly informs the movie viewer of his truthfulness.
If Emmett was in fact an innocent, that means he indirectly saved Michelle’s life without ever realizing it. This would further explain Howard’s hatred for Emmett, which is because he has spoiled his plans to immediately compel Michelle to become Megan. This explains why Howard snaps at Emmett to “Get your hands off her” when he attempts to assist her. Michelle is Howard’s property and he will not permit anyone to touch her but himself. This is further indicated in the film’s explosive dinner table scene. Michelle flirts and touches Emmett’s arm, which causes Howard to become violent and physically abusive. Howard demands control and has likely always gotten his victims to be under his control quickly, but Emmett’s presence disrupts that process. He cannot expose his true intentions, which was ultimately and tragically what ensured Emmett’s nonchalant exit from the film.
However, it should be noted that Howard’s anger absolutely stems from not being able to control Michelle. He wants her to be loyal and dependent upon him…perhaps like a scared child would be dependent on their protective parent. This suggests that Howard isn’t able to view Michelle as anything other than a child. The evidence of this is highlighted in one of the final buildup scenes to the climax. In this scene, the three characters are playing charades, which is a party game that relies on players to guess a word, phrase, or title from the card reader, who can give any verbal clues to what the selected word or phrase is before the timer goes off. This scene is particularly brilliant because the tension is centered on Michelle and Emmett’s fear of Howard learning of their intent to escape the bunker. In fact, this tension is so great that many miss the glaring revelation about Howard at the scene’s start.
The scene begins with Emmett being the cardholder and the phrase is the movie title Little Women. In an effort to get Howard to guess the title, Emmett points to Michelle and says, “Michelle is a….” In this moment, Howard is thinking fast and freely, saying the first thing that comes to his mind when it comes to thinking about Michelle. This scene directly exposes Howard’s psychology in regards to Michelle. What are his guesses: “Girl,” “Child” and even “little princess.” This is an extremely revealing moment. Howard clearly is incapable of seeing Michelle as anything outside of being a child. Treating her as a woman is something he cannot comprehend. In contrast, Howard sees Emmett as a threat. With Emmett around, Michelle has found an ally, which Howard resents.
Yet beyond that, the mere fact that Howard is in possession of both a gun and a vat of perchloric acid strongly implies that the bunker was not only where his victims would be trapped, but where their bodies would be disposed of. Emmett’s death was executed so systemically and without hesitation by Howard that there is no doubt that he has done this act before. His actions are not that of a paranoid individual who is scared for his life, but a control freak who could no longer stand that he wasn’t enjoying the fruits of his labor regarding Michelle. He killed Emmett to ensure he would finally be alone with Michelle. He even tells her this after pulling the trigger on Emmett. If one listens closely over the earsplitting ringing after the gun is fired, you can clearly hear Howard tell Michelle, “He was going to hurt you. You’re safe now. Now it’s just you and me.” Howard saying this is a clear sign of his manipulation tactics beginning to be enforced. He is immediately trying to convince Michelle that he has protected her, is her savior, and of course, wants her to be dependent to him.
Howard’s intentionality towards Michelle is further indicated once they are alone. He is dressed in more brightly lit clothes and is even clean-shaven, which is a sharp contrast to the patchy beard he sports the entire film up to this point. When he walks into Michelle’s room and offers her ice scream saying, “I thought we could have dessert first. We can do anything we want now,” it almost appears that Howard is subconsciously trying to imply that Emmett was the enemy, that Michelle should be grateful to him. The ice scream is sheer bribery to somehow, if it were ever possible, to get Michelle to appreciate Howard. To him, this is entirely logical considering he cannot view her as a woman. The Megan indoctrination has begun in his mind, only Michelle sees Howard exactly for what he is. Her penultimate escape from the bunker is particularly impactful because it is Michelle denying Howard to put her through the trauma and torment he has inflicted on who-knows how many women before her.
The ironic component of this film falls in that Howard is one-hundred-percent accurate about an alien invasion. Michelle’s escape from the bunker and Howard only introduced her to another wave of violence and the fight to survive. Yet the bulk of the movie occurs in that bunker and it is necessary not view that bunker at face value. Howard’s bunker is sinister. It is an enclosure that guaranteed death, which is the ultimate irony, especially considering that Michelle had to escape from it to save her life. Furthermore, Howard was no survivalist. Perhaps he had ingrained survival instincts, but his actions were much more representative of a serial killer who had captured his latest victim but was interrupted by an alien invasion that inadvertently gave his victim the necessary time to escape his clutches.