WARNING: If you haven’t seen Room or 10 Cloverfield Lane yet, this post contains spoilers!
We’ve all seen the classic “woman in peril” trope – a woman hunted, beaten, raped, terrorized, and/or in captivity. At first glance, a viewer may easily place both Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane into this box, but these films are so much more. Room and 10 may use the same approaches to the woman in peril trope, but when it comes to the woman herself, that’s where audiences witness something they don’t often see: a woman saving herself despite the overwhelming and terrifying odds. Of course, these are two distinctive films with two very different circumstances, the paths of Room‘s Joy and 10‘s Michelle taking them on similar paths to two very disparate endings. But is it really so different?
Room follows a young women who was kidnapped and held in a garden shed for seven years, giving birth to her captor’s child two years in and raising him to the age of five, where he begins to question the small world around him. I won’t claim to be an expert on the psychology of these events in real life, but from the movie itself (I haven’t read the book – sorry!) I gather that “Ma” aka Joy experiences PTSD, Stockholm Syndrome, regret, doubt, tremendous trauma, etc. At one point in the film, Jack (her son) asks why they can’t they just kill Old Nick (the captor) and run. Joy explains that she does not know the door code, and so they’d be trapped in the room with no food or supplies since the captor brings them these items. They’d starve to death. The captor keeps both Joy and Jack alive, often berating Joy to show him gratitude for bringing them food, clothes, medicine, and paying the bills to keep the electricity on. Joy has no other choice but to depend of her captor and abuser, to thank him when he guilts her, and to do whatever he says in order to keep her son safe (she makes Jack sleep in the wardrobe when Old Nick has his “nightly visits” with Joy). When circumstances grow more dire than usual, and spurned by Jack’s 5th birthday, Joy devises a plan with Jack to break free. Jack pretends he is sick so that Old Nick will take him to the hospital, where Jack will tell the doctors who he and his mom are. When Old Nick refuses to take Jack to the hospital, Joy despairs – but quickly persists. Mother and son soon come up with a plan in which Jack will pretend he is dead. When Old Nick goes to dispose of the body, Jack will run away and tell someone who he is. We get the sense, however, that Joy surmises she may not survive the plan and silently comes to terms with the sacrifice she will make for her son’s safety and freedom. In the end, both mother and son survive and get out–Joy having a much harder time adjusting to life in the outside world than Jack. After a short time apart, mother and son are able to start their lives anew by first facing their demons and then moving on.
10 Cloverfield Lane opens on Michelle, an aspiring clothing designer, frantically packing up and running away from a presumably bad marriage. While stopping to fill up at a gas station at night, Michelle uneasily watches a man pull up in a truck behind her. Any woman watching will recognize that inherit weary feeling of being close to a stranger at night, alone. Michelle continues on amidst her husband’s calls, and is hit by a truck and careens off the road. Michelle later wakes in a bunker, leg chained to the wall, hooked up to an IV. Pushing aside momentary panic, Michelle’s innovative nature springs into action by using the rod of the IV trip to retrieve her personal items – including her phone. With no service, Michelle waits – soon meeting her captor to discover there has been a catastrophic attack on the country. Howard, her captor (played by a chillingly brilliant John Goodman), theorizes the attack to be terrorists, Russians, North Koreans, or aliens. The attack could be nuclear or biological, but Howard assures her they are safe in his doomsday bunker. Now, we’ve all heard about the “doomsday preppers” – people who make their life’s work out of dwelling upon conspiracy theories and creating fully stocked shelters in the event something biblical occurs. And when it does, as Howard portentously tells Michelle, what sense does it make to build your arc after the flood?
Indeed, but is Howard just crazy? Has he just kidnapped her and told her this story to make her too scared to break out? Michelle grows close with the shelter’s other inhabitant, the bunker’s contractor, Emmett. They share stories of their regrets and lives, Howard soon jealously lashing out and becoming eerily protective and possessive of Michelle. Howard often alludes to his (presumably now deceased) daughter, Michelle soon discovering that Howard wishes to build some sort of skewed home and family with her that he couldn’t have with his daughter and ex-wife. Howard often berates Michelle, like Old Nick with Joy, into showing more gratitude to him for saving her life and keeping her alive. But at what cost?
Michelle learns that Howard might actually be telling the truth about the state of the outside world, and even seems to have pity for Howard. Maybe he’s not so crazy or malicious after all? Maybe he’s just a wounded father who misses his daughter?
Just when Michelle is beginning to feel “at home,” despite it all, her and Emmett make a haunting discovers that confirms Howard as the captor and killer of a previously missing young woman of Emmett’s hometown. Incited by this revelation, Michelle and Emmett concoct a plan to break out in search of help. Michelle puts her innovation and clothing design skills to good use by constructing a type of hazmat suit and gas mask out of a shower curtain, duct tape, and soda bottles. But when Howard discovers their plan, he threateningly rolls out a barrel of acid (the audience can only surmise this grisly method is how he disposed of the other young woman’s body) and questions Emmett and Michelle. When Emmett takes the blame, Howard point blank shoots him and disposes of the body in the acid. Howard then, very unsettlingly, comforts Michelle by telling her that Emmett won’t hurt her now and they can finally be together, just the two of them, like it “was always meant to be.”
As Michelle plots her next move, Howard appears, clean shaven and nicely dressed, with ice cream for Michelle. He makes a suggestion about being a happy, normal family. It’s all very, very terrifying the way he infantilizes her here as well as throughout the movie (there’s a scene where, when playing charades, he can only refer to Michelle as a girl or a princess and not a woman). Howard then discovers Michelle’s suit and mask and flies into a violent rage. Michelle takes her opportunity to run. She tips the acid to kill her captor, a fire starts, and Michelle must race against time to break out. Even as he’s dying, Howard rattles on about how he was her protector and was only trying to save her – but then proceeds to try to kill her. He’d rather kill her, like the other young woman, than have her leave him alone.
Michelle escapes to the rural landscape above – gilded in sunset light, with swaying corn and chirping birds. The world wasn’t as he said – and she believed him. She removes the mask, taking a deep breath of relief and freedom. But here’s where Room and 10 diverge.
While nuclear fall out hasn’t occurred, an alien invasion has. Employing her innovation to the last, Michelle fights from the clutches of different monsters altogether. After hearing a transmission about a safe zone and a combat zone to help fight and to help the wounded – Michelle resolutely decides to head to the latter. She takes control of her life, rather than running, in order to aid others as she was always too scared or passive to do so before.
What’s striking about both movies is that while both Joy and Michelle experience torment at the hands their captors, they are able to break free thanks to methods of their own devising. Their stories do not become your typical Law and Order episode or Lifetime movie where a dead, nameless woman is found after the fact.
As the tagline of 10 Cloverfield Lane states, Monsters come in many forms.
There’s something to be said about that fact that in both films, the captors are men who presumably feel inadequate and thus force women to their will in order to fulfill some sense of normalcy or respect they feel they lack in their own lives. Physically, Old Nick is nothing special to look at. In fact, he is made to look like your typical child predator with his creeper glasses and puffy jacket. He is a man of modest means, laid of from his job and surely feeling emasculated and inadequate in several ways. Howard is not so different. A large, imposing man with little personality save his severity and conspiracy theories (only a glimmer of humanity shines when he speaks about his past), the audience gets the feeling that he drove his wife and daughter away with his harsh personality and actions. Howard makes allusions to his family never respecting him or showing gratitude in terms of his doomsday prepping. And so also emasculated and inadequate, Howard selfishly uses a catastrophic event to his advantage to bend another woman to his will so that he can feel respected, needed, and loved at the cost of other human lives.
What is chilling, as a female viewer, is how often we see experiences these actions (to varying degrees) in everyday life. How many stories do we see in the news where a man, feeling disrespected, inadequate, and emasculated, acts out by way mass shooting, kidnapping, rape, or domestic violence? The internet often discusses certain types of men “nice guys” or “white knights”, who act as if women owe them something. Who act as if women should be eternally grateful to men who simply treat them like fellow human beings. These men are entitled because they feel small inside, and so they need to exert their desire for control and respect over others. This is not, of course, to blame all men. Society unfairly places the “cult of masculinity” on men where men are pressured to not show emotion, to demand respect and praise, to get women to conform to certain roles to serve their lives.
In Room and 10, as in life, Joy and Michelle show us that women do not owe men anything. The captors keep Joy and Michelle alive, yes, but in circumstances of each captor’s own making (of course to a very different extent in 10). And in real life, how often are women held to a standard in a world of men’s making? How often are women told by society, again and again, to say sorry, to say thank you, to make ourselves smaller, to never rock the boat too much? Society often blames victims of abuse, and in turn the victims begin to feel at fault. And there are points in both Room and 10 where Joy and Michelle, thanks to the superb acting of Brie Larson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, feel this way. But these women are not any less for feeling this way, because they are humans capable of experiencing a complex range of emotions.
Room and 10 come at a time of flux in Hollywood, a time when the call for diverse stories is loud and resounding. Women don’t always have to end up in dead in ditches after being the berated play-thing of a man. Joy and Michelle show us that “strong female characters” don’t always have to be physically or emotionally strong, but that they can also be complex in their willingness to give into despair, trauma, and depression – if only for a short time before deciding one’s fate for herself, whatever that outcome might be. “Strong” ultimately means complex, it means real. In Room, after the doctor explains to Joy that she got Jack out when he was still “plastic”, Jack takes offense and proclaims himself to be real. The doctor smiles and nods, “yes, you are real.”