The Importance of a Coat of Paint: 10 Cloverfield Lane's Fantastic Design Choices
WARNING: Significant spoilers for 10 Cloverfield Lane within.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a thriller so well constructed and efficiently paced that, despite running for just shy of 2 hours, you never once feel its length. But somewhere in the middle of this tense 103 minutes, the movie takes a moment to let two of its characters, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), confide in one another. The moment in question is one of the calmest points in a film that has been marketed as an out-of-nowhere sequel to a 2008 sci-fi picture that employed enough shaky cam cinematography and intricate, convoluted viral marketing to make the word “calm” die of an aneurysm. But the moment is probably one of the most important in the entire movie because of what's happening, not just in the dialogue between these two characters, but what's happening in the visual language of the scene's production design.
Let's back up for a moment. 10 Cloverfield Lane follows protagonist Michelle as she finds herself in a terrifying situation: having survived a car crash during a late-night getaway instigated by a quarrel with her fiance, Michelle finds herself trapped in an underground fallout shelter. Her host, Howard (John Goodman), is a hard-to-peg but undeniably unsettling presence, telling Michelle that he saved her from the wreckage of her car, bringing her to his bunker just as an undefined “attack” occurred that rendered the outside world a contaminated wasteland. Howard insists that Michelle must stay underground with both him and Emmett, a sweet but dim young man who helped Howard with some of the bunker construction. Michelle doesn't trust her new housemates, and Howard's erratic, unpredictable attitude keeps her on edge for much of her time there. However, she slowly begins to build rapport with Emmett, a partnership the two begin to rely on as they slowly unravel what exactly is going on both inside the bunker, and outside on the supposedly scorched Earth.
During their long weeks in isolation, Emmett begins a conversation about regrets of what they didn't do with their time on Earth before society as they know it ended. This conversation is put on hold for a bit, but it resurfaces during a moment where Emmett and Michelle sit on opposite sides of a wall in the bunker: Michelle in her living space, and Emmett in the cramped corner of the pantry where he's set up a mattress. Within this scene, the moment of calm mentioned in this article's opening, an ember of important character development is ignited, both in the obvious dialogue cues, and the not-so-obvious set design of the bunker itself.
Emmett's confession of regret lies in his past inaction. He was once a star athlete in high school, but a combination of nerves and doubt caused him to purposefully miss the bus to what could have been a life-changing athletic competition. He regrets not taking that bus to this very day, and ultimately, his inability to act seems to have defined his life ever since. Michelle admits that she's always run away from her problems, only to find that things just seem to get worse, a feeling she relates through an anecdote of watching an abusive father hurt his daughter, afraid to act on the girl's behalf. Michelle's tendency to flee instead of fight has already been made clear to the audience through the film's opening, as her late night escape from her relationship issues landed her in the bunker in the first place. However, as we've seen so far, Michelle isn't completely devoid of a desire to survive, as her several initial escape attempts have shown us she is not only driven, but inventive and quick-witted. Michelle may see herself as a coward, but she can act when needed, even if she can't appreciate that yet.
Beyond the straight-forward conversation unfolding for the audience, Emmett and Michelle's personal struggles are also being illuminated through the environments they sit in. Michelle leans against the warm, pink coated wall that makes up her half-painted living space. Her bedroom, like Michelle, is split between two halves, but the fact that the entirety of her conversation is framed with her against the painted wall amplifies what her conversation reveals about her character: there's a light within her, a fire. And even though she hasn't fully tapped into this power, it's there, waiting to be utilized for her to turn the tide and change her preconceived notions of herself. The warm color pallet that surrounds her plants these ideas in the mind of the audience, even if they don't realize it. And as her journey through the film continues, we see her not only learn to fight instead of flee, but ultimately, to make courageous choices for the sake of herself and others.
How can this conclusion be drawn? Well, we only need to look at the other participant in this conversation, how his side of the discussion is presented, and his ultimate end.
During their talk, Emmett sits in a room that is completely blue. Add on to that the fact that Emmett's costume design seems to exclusively contain nothing but shades of blue. The use of a cooler color pallet enhances his biggest regret: inaction. The inability do something that can make a difference. It's built into his character from the very first moment we meet him, and it's all accomplished through an ingenious use of color.
The conversation ends, but the use of color in Emmett's character arc hasn't ended. At one of the film's tensest moments, Howard discovers Michelle and Emmett's schemes to escape from the bunker. He threatens their lives unless they confess to their deeds, and in this moment, all seems lost. Then, Emmett makes a decision. He acts, taking the full force of the blame in hopes that Howard will spare Michelle. Howard seemingly forgives him, and then proceeds to shoot Emmett in the face. As Michelle recoils in horror, Howard making attempts to comfort her, the last bit of Emmett we clearly see is his blood soaking the wall behind where he stood. Emmett finally decided to be active instead of passive. In doing so, a warm color, red, finally enters Emmett's on-screen design, although through very unfortunate means.
10 Cloverfield Lane's is going to be endlessly discussed in terms of how it functions as a piece of modern franchise filmmaking, that's just the state of the industry. But, it would be nice if critics and audiences could step back and also dissect the film on how excellently its individual pieces work. There's a lot to love in this picture, a genre piece that seems small in scope but still manages to convey big emotions. It contains winning performances, a script that doesn't waste a single moment, fantastic sound design, and ultimately, a director that knows how to tell stories with an eye towards visuals. Director Dan Trachtenberg knows the value of a paint-job and a quiet moment, and 10 Cloverfield Lane is all the better for it.