'10 Cloverfield Lane'
The worst thing about ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ is the title. It’s not just awkward; it’s a spoiler. Sadly, the realities of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking mean that the movie has to be marketed as a franchise entry and even the deliberately oblique trailer or the claims that this is merely a “blood relative” to the original ‘Cloverfield’ kind of blow the finale.
Thankfully, there’s very little to complain about in ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ beyond the title. If you somehow haven’t figured out what that means, then you’re in the best possible circumstance to see the movie. It’s a damn good thriller. It just could have been a great one if the marketing department had let J.J. Abrams play this hand even closer to his chest.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Michelle, a young woman fleeing a relationship when she ends up in a car wreck. She wakes up hours later handcuffed to a wall and sweating through a bare mattress. Her captor is Howard (John Goodman), a mysterious man who claims to have saved her and brought her to his secret underground shelter. Apparently, something bad happened above ground, leaving the world in an apocalyptic state. Howard, Michelle and another young man named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr. from ‘The Newsroom’) are all lucky to have been invited into the shelter, even if it tends to feel more like a prison.
That summary covers roughly the first ten or so minutes of the movie and I wouldn’t dare to reveal any more. Title aside, producer Abrams and company have done a damn good job keeping their secrets intact, and with good reason. This is another exercise in Abrams’ patented “Mystery Box” school of storytelling, and this time the minimal cast actually live within that mystery box.
Written by Damien Chazelle (‘Whiplash’), Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ falls somewhere between a tightly constructed chamber drama and an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’. Beyond an overwhelming sense of paranoia and suspense hanging over every scene, the tone and even genre of the piece shift freely at the will of the filmmakers. At times, the movie even plays like a comedy, just one that could go wrong at any second. Director Dan Trachtenberg shoots it all with such a clear command of space, tempo and thrills that it’s remarkable the movie qualifies as a feature debut. The mysteries surrounding every character are so dense and fluid that it’s virtually impossible to tear your eyes from the screen or predict the next twist. This might essentially be a three-hander character piece, but it plays out with more excitement and intensity than most genre efforts on a massive scale.
However, despite all the careful writing and clever filmmaking on display, the concept demands that ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ be an actor’s picture and none of the three leads disappoint. John Gallagher, Jr. lays on some thick country charm that always hints at a sense of suffering beneath the surface. John Goodman delivers one of the finest performances of his career, towering over his the other cast physically and psychologically. Though he gets some dark laughs, most of his usual sweetness is hidden beneath lonely swagger and explosions of anger that make him difficult to trust even in his gentlest moments. He creates a terrifying figure without ever feeling like a heartless monster and it’s a hell of performance.
Though Goodman gets showiest role, it’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s film to carry and she does so brilliantly. Never for a moment does she fall into damsel-in-distress mode. Her character is always thinking, plotting and sizing up her situation and surroundings. Though she rarely speaks her true feelings for fear of being overheard, it’s always clear what she’s thinking and what she’s hiding through subtle looks and silent emoting. It’s a remarkable bit of work from the underrated actress, and even stretches into previously untested waters of ass-kickery that suggest she could very well become an action star if that’s of any interest to her.
It’s difficult to describe exactly what’s so good and impressive about ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ without giving the game away. That should be avoided since the filmmakers have done well concealing the secrets that viewers should discover while their palms are sweating in the tensest moments. Trachtenberg and his screenwriters play the audience like an instrument and it’s damn near impossible not to get swept up and enjoy the ride.
Granted, the finale leaves a little to be desired both thanks to the title and the fact that Trachtenberg’s stylish shooting and staging devolves into tedious shaky-cam silliness. Still, these weaknesses are minor even if they do sadly limit ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ to merely being a very good movie as opposed to the great one it inches towards. That’s just fine, though. Damn good genre movies are hard enough to find, especially within the studio system. Everyone involved deserves praise for pulling this tense little genre experiment off. This series is quickly turning into one of the more intriguing franchises clogging up the Hollywood production slate. It’ll be fascinating to see what’s planned for the third act, given how well the last two movies have delivered the unexpected. It’s safe to say Abrams has something big hidden at the bottom of the ‘Cloverfield’ mystery box, and hopefully it won’t be too long before we all get to sneak a peek.