10 Cloverfield Lane
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg.
Written by: Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle.
Starring: John Goodman (Howard), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Michelle), John Gallagher Jr. (Emmett).
Spoiler Warning: You probably shouldn’t read anything about 10 Cloverfield Lane before seeing the film, which more than most films, relies on its twists for its impact. I will tread lightly, I think, into spoilers in this post – but you’d probably be better off just coming back after you’ve seen the movie. And you should definitely see the movie.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a film that works best the less you know about it. It is a movie that deliberately keeps the audience in the dark about what is really going on, and what its motives are – but unlike many movies that do something similar, it doesn’t feel like a cheat this time around – basically because the heroine is as in the dark as we are - in fact, since she doesn’t know the title of the movie she’s in, she’s even more in the dark. Yes, the title of the movie is kind of a spoiler for the movie to follow – one that feels like it was made more for financial reasons than artistic ones. A different title may have given the ending more a jolt – or a different ending may have been more shocking – but then again I can imagine a bunch of angry Cloverfield fans getting upset had the film ended differently than it does.
The film stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle – a woman who gets upset at her finance, leaves her ring behind and takes off in her car. She’s driving along the dark, lonely backroads of the Southern USA, ignoring phone calls from her finance, where her car is blindsided, and she tumbles down and down and down in her car. She wakes up with an IV in her, but chained to a pipe. She isn’t in a hospital. Soon Howard (John Goodman) will come in with some food and an explanation. He found her on the side of the road, and couldn’t just leave her there to die, so he brought her back to his underground bunker. And it’s a damn good thing he did to, because America is under attack. Howard doesn’t know if it’s nuclear, chemical or alien, or who’s attacking, but he’s sure someone is, and the air is poison. They’ll be down there a while. And they are not alone. There’s also Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who doesn’t seem as paranoid or delusional or scary as Howard – but he does back him up on the important stuff. An attack has happened, and nowhere except Howard’s bunker – that he’s worked years on, for just such an occasion, is safe.
The film is basically a Hitchcock-ian thriller, with these three people bouncing off of each other in the large, spacious bunker (there are multiple rooms, meaning characters can talk out of range of the third person). From the beginning, it’s clear that Howard is paranoid, and perhaps delusional, but at the same time, there is evidence that he still may be correct. Goodman, one of the most reliable character actors working today, gives one of his finest performances as the unhinged Howard – who wants everything to be nice and orderly and sweet – a little surrogate family unit, who is seemingly unaware that it is his fits of rage and paranoia that really make things awkward and tense in the bunker. Winstead is reliable as ever in Scream Queen mode, and she gives her Michelle more depth than most other similar characters – she’s a survivor, and those instincts do her well. Gallagher has a more thankless role – his Emmett is rather sweet and rather dim – nothing much seems to faze him, and he goes through the movie with a perpetual smile on his face, and willing to go along with just about anything.
The film has twists and turns galore – especially in its final act, which will either work for you, or completely will not. It did for me, in part because I often think movies like this only really screw up in its final moments, as it needs to find a way to end things that is as satisfactory as the long, slow buildup. 10 Cloverfield Lane finds a way that is decidedly not anti-climactic, as it morphs into another movie in its final minutes – but a really exciting one.
I have no idea how 10 Cloverfield Lane will play when I watch it a second time (I definitely will watch it a second time though). Is this a thriller that reveals more layers once the shocks and surprises no longer shock and surprise, or will it seem like a rather shallow genre piece, designed really to only be watched once? I have no idea. What I do know is that the film works like gangbusters the first time through – gradually building tension, and then wonderfully releasing it. What a smart idea that producer JJ Abrams had to make a quasi-sequel to Cloverfield, the 2008 found footage monster movie, but make it a completely and totally different experience. I prefer this one. Debut director Dan Trachtenberg masterfully builds suspense, and gets great performances from his two leads. I almost wish the film was still called The Cellar (or The Bunker), its original title, and didn’t reveal its connection to the previous movie in the title (that reveal, late in the film, would have been amazing). Yet, I understand that to a certain extent, the title was necessary – Abrams and company needed to get people to a smaller, three person chamber piece thriller – and how else were they going to do that?