Before you go any further, this article contains multiple spoilers for 10 Cloverfield Lane. It’s a film best seen with as little prior knowledge as possible. So, in the spirit of the movie, hole yourself up in a bunker until you’ve seen it.
Here comes the spoilers.
In Defence of Howard’s Actions in 10 Cloverfield Lane
John Goodman’s Howard is the violent, unpredictable core of 10 Cloverfield Lane. He’s the inciting incident (running Michelle’s car off the road), the source of all conflict, and the dominator of every scene (a credit to Goodman’s performance). He’s a man of grunts, sighs and exhales, and is, arguably, the physical embodiment of the bunker itself, with its mechanical whirs, bubbling fish tank and compartmentalised chambers.
He’s the film’s antagonist. He bears uncomfortably over Michelle as though she’s his estranged daughter; and bullies Emmett, the builder who broke into the bunker as the world outside was being obliterated.
But Howard is more complex than that villain captor archetype would suggest. He has a sympathetically damaged psyche (his estranged daughter), an admirable pragmatism (if it wasn’t for him, Michelle and Emmett would be dead) and good intentions (he genuinely wants to keep Michelle safe…even if some of that unfortunately goes to its pathological extremes).
With this in mind, here are three points in defence of Howard’s character. Because he ain’t the bad guy; he ain’t the ‘monster’ the poster promises. He’s the victim.
YOU’RE HIDING IN A CONFINED SPACE FROM AN UNKNOWN DEADLY THREAT. DON’T SCREW AROUND.
This is a point easier said than done. Confined to an area no bigger than the first floor of a house with two other people for a year is not an ideal living situation. Arguments will flair up about lights being left on and toilet seats being left up. So, for maximum survival and easy living, don’t sneak around plotting against the mentally unstable guy who owns the place.
Once Michelle realises that the world upstairs has gone to pieces (very sick looking women bashing their head against your door will do that), there is a period of relative tranquility in the bunker. It’s important to note that the very uncomfortable tension around the dinner table before this (where many have noted Howard’s intimidation tactics as very reminiscent of domestic abuse) evaporates once Michelle understands the gravity of the situation outside. Howard relaxes into a completely different person from then on. That earlier domineering persona could just as well be attributed to the highly stressful situation the characters find themselves in, and Michelle’s recurring attempts at escape to her doom.
Following this, though, Michelle, Howard and Emmett work as a team. They slowly open up to each other, revealing regrets from their past lives, and, eventually, start to resemble a family. Life is good, end-of-the-world considering.
Then Michelle discovers that Howard has been lying to them. The picture he’s been proudly showing isn’t actually of his estranged daughter Megan. It’s of a local girl that went missing, implying Howard imprisoned and murdered her in the pre-apocalypse world.
It’s an awkward situation to say the least. Now scared of Howard, Michelle and Emmett plan their escape.
This is an understandable reaction. They’ve both just found out Uncle Howard, who saved them both from an alien invasion, is actually probably a child murderer.
But Howard has been fine since Michelle stopped threatening to escape outside into a possibly poisonous atmosphere. He’s actually been very accommodating. If Michelle and Emmett managed to put the whole child murder thing to one side – which is admittedly difficult – they should have raised the biohazard suit idea with Howard first.
It sounds like exactly the sort of plan he’d get behind – it involves making stuff, investigating a conspiracy theory, and all while remaining safe in your own mobile bunker.
Of course, he could also go crazy, shoot the idea down and threaten to kill everyone, but that’s typical in shared living environments. If he does – go ahead with the biohazard plan anyway. You’ll be justified then. Unless the idea is put forward to him, though, nobody can say for sure what he would’ve done. He could’ve used his considerable know-how to help construct the suit.
In a post-apocalyptic world, you need all the help you can get. Absent daughter-fixating or not.
I WOULD’VE SHOT EMMETT, TOO
At the film’s darkest point, where Howard discovers Michelle’s escape plan, Emmett takes the fall. He confesses that he was planning to steal Howard’s gun so he could take control of the bunker. He wanted Michelle to respect him the way she does Howard.
It’s a good ploy, appealing to Howard’s ego, and a neat character beat, too – foreshadowed in Michelle’s earlier story of how her brother used to protect her from their violent father.
That aside, imagine you’re Howard. The guy you’ve always been suspicious of – Emmett – has just point blank admitted he wants to steal your gun, kill you and rape the girl you consider a daughter. Of course you shoot him in the face and dump the body in a vat of acid.
One of the more frustrating obstacles of post-apocalyptic fiction is the inevitable moment when the group must decide whether to commit murder. It’s an unavoidable conversation, but…I’m a pragmatist. In a post-apocalyptic world, it is far more sensible to kill the threat before it kills you.
It’s a point Rick Grimes reaches around Season 5 of Walking Dead. He’s lived through so much betrayal and horror, he no longer needs the ‘value of human life’ chat. He quickly disposes of anyone who threatens his family.
Howard has just managed to reach this mindset a lot quicker. To be honest, he was half-way there by the time the aliens landed. That’s what seriously delusional Doomsday Preppers do – they don’t just build a nuclear fallout shelter; they mentally condition themselves to deal with that post-apocalyptic world.
It’s just…this time the Doomsday Prepper was right.
I know what you’re thinking: if killing Emmett is justified for him being a threat, then so is killing Howard. Michelle just found out he murdered a young girl in the past; what’s to say he won’t murder all of them anyway!
WWRGD? What Would Rick Grimes Do? He’d kill Howard, no ethical struggle required.
THE SECOND CHANCE
Morality – what is wrong and right, decent or sinful – is a social construct. It isn’t a natural phenomenon. It’s a set of rules put in place when large groups of people started living together to stop them all stealing, raping and murdering each other.
So what happens to morality when society is annihilated by invading aliens?
It’s a great question, and is at the root of the best post-apocalyptic fiction. In the world before the fall, Howard would be in the wrong – both morally and in law. He imprisoned and killed a child. But now there are neither morals or law, and Howard is a tremendous asset for survival. He knows everything about the bunker. He has been preparing for the apocalypse for a long time. He is a former army man. His skills are more valuable than both Emmett and Michelle’s combined.
But pragmatism is only the window dressing of this argument.
What really matters is that Howard has done nothing wrong since aliens levelled New York. In fact, he’s done the opposite. He’s the only one of the three who’s done everything right. He is the sole reason for everyone’s survival.
Sure, he’s a bit unhinged, but who isn’t? No act of his in the post-apocalyptic, post-Michelle-trying-to-escape-getting-herself-killed-herself world (evidence of the murdered girl are pre-apocalyptic artefacts) suggests he is harmful. And that fact reveals the saddest reason why Howard is the victim.
The alien invasion is presented as a second chance in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Emmett never made anything of himself in his previous life, so he sacrifices himself for Michelle. Michelle always ran away from situations in the past, but now, with Howard, she confronts one head-on. So what about Howard?
His daughter was taken away from him in a messy divorce, most likely now dead because of the alien invasion. In response, he imprisoned and then murdered a teenage girl. Howard’s is by far the most reprehensible of past sins, which is why he’s trying the hardest to make up for it; he’s keeping two people alive in his bunker.
He is a tortured, misguided man who committed a heinous act. But that was in a different, long-gone world. The alien invasion brought an end to that life. Now, in his second, he is searching for recompense.
Really, the question this all comes down to is: should a person be held accountable for the sins of their previous life?
I would argue, if that character does not seek penance, nor exhibits humanistic traits, then yes, they should be held accountable. They have not changed, and show no interest in rehabilitation. That makes them just as dangerous now as they were before the fall.
But Howard does try to make amends. Howard does perform acts of kindness. He embraces the alien invasion’s second chance far more eagerly than Michelle and Emmett.
Looking back on Howard’s life, it’s almost like that’s why he wanted a doomsday scenario, why he’d been preparing for one for so long. He’d made too many wrong decisions, taken too many wrong turns. He’d found himself trapped in a metaphorical bunker of his own making.
So he constructed one for real, secretly hoping that the world would end so he could start anew. Only he never really got that second chance like the others. The film needed him to be the bad guy. And that’s why he is the real victim of 10 Cloverfield Lane.