A few hours after watching “10 Cloverfield Lane,” I found my nerves were still fried by what I had just witnessed. It feels like it has been ages since a movie made me feel that way, so that’s quite the compliment. Billed as a “spiritual successor” and a “blood relative” to the 2008 monster movie “Cloverfield,” this one works best if you know very little about it when you go inside the theater. Alfred Hitchcock would have gotten a kick out of this as the filmmakers play with your expectations and leave you in a suspended state of suspense throughout. It would be wise to see the movie before reading this review because it is that riveting.
The movie opens on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hurriedly packing her things and moving out of the apartment she shares with her fiancé Ben. While driving through rural Louisiana, she ends up getting into a very serious car accident which renders her unconscious, and she later wakes up to find herself in a concrete room chained to the wall. Eventually she meets Howard (John Goodman), a survivalist who tells her he saved her life and is nursing her back to health. However, Howard also tells her that a deadly attack has taken place and that everyone outside is dead or dying.
They end up occupying an underground bunker which Howard built himself as he always suspected that America was going to be attacked somehow, and along with fellow survivor Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) they try to live normally by watching videos, doing puzzles, playing board games and occasionally playing a song on the jukebox. But things are never what they appear to be, and soon the bunker won’t be big enough for the three of them.
“10 Cloverfield Lane” marks the feature film directorial debut of Dan Trachtenberg whose previous work includes a short film entitled “Portal: No Escape” which caught the eye of producer J.J. Abrams. It’s a heck of a debut as Trachtenberg puts us right into Michelle’s shoes as we come to have as much an idea of what’s going on as she does. Was there really an attack? Is Howard really worth trusting? Should they stay in the bunker until it’s alright to come out? Questions keep coming up as we try to stay one step ahead of the characters, but anything is possible and nothing can be left to chance.
Trachtenberg is also well served by a strong screenplay from Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and “Whiplash’s” writer/director Damien Chazelle which gives us characters who are complex and easy to relate to. These three people are not cardboard idiots out to make the dumbest mistakes possible but instead complex individuals trying to navigate through their own personal issues while attempting to adjust to a possibly post-apocalyptic world. This only adds to the very palpable tension which escalates throughout as does the sharp cinematography by Jeff Cutter, the efficient editing by Stefan Grube and the pulse-pounding music score by “Battlestar Galactica” composer Bear McCreary.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead has long since proven to be a terrific actress thanks to her unforgettable turns in movies like “Live Free or Die Hard,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and in the criminally underrated “Smashed.” She is a revelation here as Michelle as her character goes from running away from trouble to being forced to confront it head on. It’s great to see Winstead portray Michelle not as some ordinary action heroine, but instead as someone trying to stay one step ahead of those who might not have her best interests in mind.
John Gallagher, Jr. is perhaps best known for his work onstage in the rock musicals “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot” as well as for appearing on “The Newsroom.” For a moment it looks like his character of Emmett is going to be some clichéd southern dude, but Gallagher never falls into that trap as he reveals Emmett to be a man whose best days may have passed him by, but who is not about to give up on life and those he cares about.
But after coming out of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” I kept wondering if audiences realize just what a great actor John Goodman is. He has delivered one terrific performance after another for years, but has his talent been taken for granted? After serving time on “Roseanne,” he delivered a stellar performance as the seriously disturbed insurance salesman Charlie Meadows. I was reminded of that performance while watching him here as Howard as this is a character who cannot be simply described as a good or bad guy. Goodman makes him into a complex human being and one who is driven by fear more than anything else, and this makes the actions he commits all the more unnerving.
It may still be early in 2016, but Goodman most definitely deserves Oscar consideration here. He proves what a masterful actor he is in that he never has to move a muscle in certain scenes to generate severe unease in the other characters as well as the audience. Just a glare from his eyes will have you on edge as Howard is a man desperate to control his surroundings as well as the people living with him. It’s a frightening performance as Goodman makes Howard terrifyingly unpredictable in his actions. At one point Howards seems agreeable, and in the next he finds himself in a rage. If you are not convinced that Goodman is one of the best actors working in movies today, watching him here should change your mind.
Like I said, “10 Cloverfield Lane” has been described as a “blood relative” or a “spiritual successor” to “Cloverfield.” Those descriptions are very appropriate as it differs quite a bit stylistically to the 2008 movie. None of the characters from “Cloverfield” appear here, and this one is not a found footage film which means no shaky cam. In fact, it’s highly likely that “10 Cloverfield Lane” doesn’t even exist on the same timeline as “Cloverfield.” Still, this movie does share a number of thematic elements that were prominent in “Cloverfield.” To say just how many of them it shares with “Cloverfield” though would ruin many of the surprises in store for the audience.
While most sequels or follow ups try to outdo their predecessors by giving us something even bigger, this follow up is instead more simplistic in its approach and shows how less can be more. Trachtenberg makes you experience every claustrophobic and nerve wracking moment to an infinite degree, and it makes “10 Cloverfield Lane” blow “Cloverfield” right out of the water.
2016 has so far given some good movies and others that will be forgotten in no time at all, but “10 Cloverfield Lane” is one of the first great movies I have seen so far in this early year. It takes you on a rollercoaster ride filled with sharp turns, and keeps you guessing all the way to the end.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016
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