aleph null [more like aleph lull]’s review published on Letterboxd :
hello lovelies! i’m not marking this review as containing spoilers, because i want to say some things that are very important to me, much as in my review of the master. but! i will be talking about the ending of this film in detail, so please be forewarned. and make no mistake: THE ENDING IS ESSENTIAL. content warning for lots of discussion of abuse.
the central uncertainty here isn't, as a lot of people have thought, ‘is howard abusive or is he telling the truth?’. if it were, then yes, the title would be a spoiler. howard may be telling the truth, but he is most certainly abusive, and is so for the entire duration of the film. he expects gratitude, controls without consent, doesn’t consider whether his help is the help michelle wants, can never consider himself at fault. he adheres to a perfect threaten-comfort cycle: he inflicts terror upon michelle and emmett, then reassures. terror of the outside world and of the (theoretical or immanent) consequences of disobedience, reassurance that everything will be safe and happy and good if they follow the rules (better this time). whether or not it’s intentional—and abuse doesn’t have to be intentional—it’s the perfect tumble-dry to break people down, wear away their inner strength, and leave them clinging to their abuser, the only person (they feel) they can rely on. this is #relatable as hell and so i hope you understand when i mention the complete panic that came over me at the shot of howard's shaven face: that wholesome costume change, which howard means to signify a new beginning, instead signifies only a temporary reprieve, and michelle’s next fall from howard’s capricious grace will shatter her if she doesn’t shatter him first.
the whole time in the bunker’s built on (usually smaller) versions of these local maxima, just waiting for the other shoe to drop, and i’m grateful that there’s no ambiguity as to whether it will drop. it’s telegraphed not just through specifically focused shots (howard clenching his hands at the dinner table) but through dozens of densely-packed perfectly-judged mannerisms. no matter how many plausible or semi-plausible explanations or rationalisations howard proffers, it’s so, so clear from the beginning that howard is a powder keg. that’s not in question at all. neither is it in question that the outside is unsafe—soon as howard’s neighbour lady smashes her forehead against the glass, there’s no narrative reason to doubt that something’s immanentised at least a local eschaton.
rather, michelle’s great uncertainty is whether the danger of staying with howard is greater than the danger of venturing outside. i wasn’t brought up in strict fundamentalism but a lot of my friends were; they were told, over and over, that the world outside was evil and predatory, that staying within their own highly abusive family unit (or fictive kinship) was the only safety within a fallen, depraved, predatory creation. howard’s portrayals of the outside world are in eerie parallel with fundamentalists’, and his understanding of the world inside the bunker is just as dangerous. like christian fathers who enforce purity culture, he infantilises michelle, can’t think of her as older than a girl or ‘little princess’, tries to force her into his perfect picture of pretty-in-pink filial innocence. he exerts inordinate material and ideological control over the bunker’s other occupants with all the certainty of divinely-appointed patriarchal headship; it’s no coincidence that emmett’s first guess to the identity of howard’s ‘i’m always watching!’ impression is ‘god’. and like people i’ve known who’ve had to escape from similar situations, michelle and emmett use their knowledge of how to hide things both digital and physical to keep themselves safe. but they can’t stay safe from howard forever. because he’s actually not being completely understandable and rational given circumstances; that’s his abusive logic reaching out to affect you, just like walter’s did in his girl friday. his multiple/inconsistent motives don’t make him an incoherent character; most people’s ideologies contain plenty of contradictions, and fundamentalist parents’ are no exception. (think of mother gothel in tangled—and she doesn’t even have howard’s notions of patriarchal headship.)
so i understand why people embrace this false equivocation, the idea that ‘maybe he’s crazy, but the world’s going a little crazy too’. and it’s possible the film mildly overplays this; the death of howard’s previous daughter-surrogate is a drastically unambiguous revelation of howard’s unsafety. but howard is far from the first person to try to control michelle. some (and i totally get where this view comes from) find it unlikely she’d be as paralysed, taken aback, at a loss as she was in the story she recounted to emmett, that she’d have found a way to help the child, but she explicitly connects her reaction to her own experience with her father, and that totally syncs up with my experience of dealing with situations filled with traumatic connotations. on top of that, she’s just escaped from ex-fiancé bradley cooper—i know several people were surprised she ‘forgot’ about him by the end of the film, but his phone call is eerily similar to ones i’ve received from faux-repentant abusers. she most definitely didn’t leave him over a single argument; sure, he frames it that way, but why trust him when he’s downplaying it so much? so i don’t think it’s so far off-track for michelle to be so scared of helping the girl or of getting herself free. sometimes it does take genuine, direct fear for your life, explicitly confirmed, for you to be willing to flee abuse. that’s how powerful it is at getting you to stay. because the fundamental principle of abuse is that leaving is always more dangerous, whether because the abuser ‘needs’ the abused or (as here) because the abused person will be unsafe outside the relationship.
AND BUT SO it’s because of all this completely resonant fundamentalist parallelism that the ending is perfect. yes, on the most basic level, it’s a fist-pumping she-did-that! liberation narrative. but much as the final shot of days of heaven refocuses that film’s entire grounding, everything following michelle’s escape totally shifts the film’s being, not once, not twice, not thrice, but in four movements.
first, and most basically, the world is not inherently, inescapably toxic. the protective suit that she’s put around herself to insulate herself from and protect herself within the outside world (it’s a metaphor!) isn’t a guard she’ll need to have up every single moment of her life. the moment she removes her helmet and the ambient sounds of dusk flood her ears and those tears roll down her cheeks—i wept openly in the cinema. it is every single overwhelming flush of relief for every abused friend breaking free rolled into one. it is exactly that irruption of calm everyday existence into the tense & wound-up silence of dread that we thought was the everyday calm. it's everything.
second, elements of the world can nevertheless be lethally predatory. the world outside fundamentalism does contain dangers michelle’s never encountered before. howard did warn her about these things, to some extent, because even fundamentalists pick the right enemies sometimes, and those enemies can be damn scary too. BUT those enemies are only in the world. that’s all. they’re not the world in totality. and her time spent under abuse has given her tools to survive encounters with these enemies—she has a protective covering that helps her endure what others cannot. and the time she has to spend in that suit is so much less than the time she spent with howard, and best of all, she doesn’t have to share that suit with him.
third, she has the power to fight those enemies. she can defend herself against them, which is a++ in itself, but even better: she's not irrevocably broken, forever in hiding, doomed to fail all future confrontation. even though she’s been running from danger for so much of her life, she does have the power to overcome creatures and people who want to harm her or others. it’s so popular to depict people who’ve escaped abuse as being in a lot of pain and incredibly vulnerable for the rest of their lives, and i understand the compassionate origins of those narrative choices, but enduring abuse takes a lot of inner strength. breaking out involves a ton of emotional recalibration, but that recalibration doesn’t take forever, and sometimes it has to be set aside to deal with imminent threats. michelle’s unbreakability isn’t a blithe pollyannaish kimmy schmidt kind of unbreakable; it’s the endurance and resourcefulness that helped her survive multiple abusive situations. it’s firmly rooted in her character, and, fourth—
fourth, AND IF YOU’RE TRYING TO SKIP TO THE POINT THIS IS IT, it’s because she’s held together, kept her love for people, kept her care for people, resolved to help people in danger, danger similar to the danger she’s endured, that the ending is a happy ending. do you understand? this is the ultimate power fantasy for me and for everyone i know who is or has been trapped in abuse (and that's, like, 90% of my close friends). why? because it’s not a power fantasy that considers flattened, repressed, hardened emotions to be a prerequisite for survival, pre- or post-abuse. it’s not a power fantasy that considers the violent defeat of individual oppressors & abusers to be the end of the story. it’s a power fantasy that we'll be able to drive away into the dark as fast as we can, jesse pinkman-style, with a destination we’ve chosen for ourselves: helping other people who've been through the same shit we've been through. this is her superhero origin story. and this is the narrative resettling, days of heaven-style: the aliens aren’t the postscript to the captured-by-howard chapter in michelle’s life; the whole story of howard’s abuse, in fact michelle’s entire life up to this point, is the prequel to her story of fighting and defeating the invaders, the horrific systems of power that oppress people around the world. it’s blunt as hell and i love it to death. it’s exactly the encouragement i want to latch onto and shout forever and consciously choose every single day of the rest of my life. it’s exactly what’s kept me from posting nearly eighty reviews in the past two months, just so this precious little movie can be my very special 700th logged film.
because i remember being broken enough that my abilities to take care of those around me were severely impaired, and i remember the knowledge that i would soon be breaking out of abuse, would be able to choose, over and over, to use that freedom for communal and not just individual liberation. it was and is literally everything i live for. it's furiosa and her cohorts making their u-turn on the salt flats; it’s brie larson’s whole backstory in short term 12; it’s... look, there aren't that many films that actively do this or do it well, okay? but to have that message preached to a mainstream audience this bluntly is not a bad thing. the film’s more than earned a literal sign spelling out michelle’s choice and the consciousness with which she chooses to give of herself. isn’t compelled to prioritise the safety of those she can help, but actively and consciously chooses it. i will totally take that message being preached to the nations, to everyone in abusive situations (and to everyone looking down on them), that yes, you can go on to louisiana if you want, and we’ll look after you—but we also believe in you to be strong, and of good courage, and to fight these horrifying systems hurting vulnerable people all over the world. it's a narrative that gives and gave me hope without ever feeling platitudinous or like i had to give up my humanity to survive or like i would be spent, emotionally, once i got fully free, or that i would just have to spend the rest of my life recovering, that everything would just be a painful postscript to pain. this ending with these aliens was entirely necessary for me: it encouraged me that whatever struggles i faced on the other side of abuse, no matter how unfamiliar or unexpected, would be struggles i could take. that i wouldn’t be alone. that i would always have the choice of being protected or fighting to protect others—and that neither would be bad.
but i would always have that choice. and always be able to choose whichever was needed.
and that was, and is, more than worth living for.