The first thing 10 Cloverfield Lane does is draw its audience into its surprisingly intimate tale, shakes every member a little senseless and then drops them off just as lost as the film’s lead, Michele (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The result is an outstanding, memorable experience. The story forces its audience to be as paranoid, puzzled and probing as Michelle as she awakens from a horrific car accident to find herself chained to a pipe, lying on a mattress in a sealed room with lined with nothing but cinder block walls. Director Dan Trachtenberg examines everything with his camera – every person, every door, every possible exit. The lens is his Sherlock Holmes working out every detail, determining what is going on and how to get the hell out. By the time John Goodman barges into Michelle’s makeshift cell, he looks like an aged Norman Bates intermixed with a somewhat restrained Leatherface; he is imposing, unsettling and, most definitely, off his rocker. Trachtenberg coaxes the absolute best out of his cast. John Gallagher Jr., along with Winstead and Goodman, are all a marvelous treat to watch as their story unfolds on screen. The tale is mysterious, dangerous and fabulous – one of the best of the year.
Then, there is this Cloverfield connection the film dangles in front of its audience like an enticing, alluring tease. It is uncertain if the titular connection to the 2008 monster found footage hit from J.J. (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) Abrams and Matt (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) Reeves is a bonus or a distraction. One thing all this speculation proves, fortunately, is that it is all totally unnecessary. Spoilers, perhaps, but 10 Cloverfield Lane is only tangentially connected to Cloverfield – at least, at this time. The film is traditionally shot, abandoning the found footage approach of Cloverfield. It both invokes that film and ignores everything it contains. In many ways, the comparison is incredibly fascinating. Thankfully, 10 Cloverfield Lane is so well executed and conceived that it stands on its own merits regardless of its connection to the previously similarly named Bad Robot film. If there proves to be more “Cloverfield” named films, it will likely demonstrate the thematic approach to a film franchise that Debra Hill and John Carpenter attempted with Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
The script for 10 Cloverfield Lane primarily follows its lead Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as her flight from a confining relationship transforms into a life-and-death escape when she finds herself trapped in a bunker after a car accident. Her “host”, Howard (John Goodman) insists he has saved her life from a chemical or nuclear attack, that he along with Michelle and fellow bunker-mate Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), may be the only survivors of this horrible event. Michelle is far from convinced Howard is on the up and up. She constantly looks for evidence of the world above and a way out of her nightmare. The more she uncovers, the more horrifying her plight becomes.
The film’s strength lies on the performances of the three primary cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr. and John Goodman. These three create a volatile and gripping dynamic between them. Every fact is under question, the truth can be disputed and twisted. Winstead proves that she is every bit a good as her previous roles (Scott Pilgrim vs the World, The Thing) promised she could be. She brings a touch of Janet Leigh mixed with Sigourney Weaver, a strong female lead proving a match for her equally strong co-stars. Gallagher, who is about as far from his Jim Harper role on The Newsroom as he could get, stirs the pot with his fence waffling character Emmett. He oozes sadness and regret, bringing a sadness to his condition that elevates his role and the film. But, the film may belong to John Goodman who casts a large, looming, threatening shadow over the others cast mates. His Howard is wound tight and it frighteningly unnerving. Between his heavy, purposeful breathing and his hands constantly wringing, Howard is a grenade with its pin pulled. It is not about will he go off, it is all about when. Between Winstead’s paranoia and Goodman’s ticking time bomb, every scene is thick with delicious tension.
Director Dan Trachtenberg shines with 10 Cloverfield Lane, his first feature length film. Much like Matt Reeves with Cloverfield, Trachtenberg delivers the goods under J.J. Abrams tutelage. He grabs the audience’s attention early on with an unsettling pre-credits introduction that feels reminiscent of Marion Crane’s quandary in Hitchcock’s classic Psycho. He expertly combines story, visuals and sound to shock his audience into an apprehensive state, uncertain of what exactly will follow. Once inside the bunker, his camera focuses upon his lead, Michelle, and everything she sees and hears as the story unfolds entirely from her point of view. The script from Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle provides only what Michelle knows and learns be it from what she sees, what she is told or what she suspects. Trachtenberg handles the confinement of the bunker with an exploring camera that defies the restriction of the concrete walls. When it comes time to peek back out at the outside world, he keeps everyone in the dark only sharing a constrained, focus view of immediacy. He also handles the action and tension with perfection as well. When the time comes for Michelle to act, the scenes are tense and suspenseful.
And, then, there’s the third act. At some point, the hints of something else – something much larger – just outside the locked hatches planted throughout the film must be revealed. Is it all just the imaginations of Howard’s fractured, conspiracy-theory-fueled mind? Is the air outside truly contaminated? Are the noises heard rumbling above a foreign army overtaking the countryside? Or, are they a mysterious force from another world altogether? 10 Cloverfield Lane does not disappoint, it dives into the answers to these mysteries, leaving its audience both satisfied and gasping for more. Dan Trachtenberg kicks into high gear with the force of an atomic bomb mushrooming out of the bunker into an explosion of surprises and action. The end is jaw-dropping incredible, an astounding, rousing success.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a curious exercise in singular execution and creative marketing. The film stands on its own with no need to be tied to any previous film or contrivance. However, allowing the film to reside in the same world as Cloverfield with its similarities and its differences creates a fascinating scope and promise of more to come. This approach allows one beautiful stroke of J.J. Abrams’ paint brush on a larger canvas to be a full story onto itself and be a detail of a larger work of art. The film benefits from a marvelous cast. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr. are all incredible in their roles, each complex and charismatic. Director Dan Trachtenberg proves more than capable of continuing the legacy of Bad Robot’s stable of genre films. He handles the quieter focus on character with an equal amount of expertise and confidence as he does with the larger moments and thrilling action. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a unique beast, its tale is fixated on Michelle and her story but also feels very much a part of a larger story. And, more importantly, it only becomes a stronger film because of it, both grounding the film in Michelle’s world and her immediate dilemma while exposing a world around her that is a larger conundrum, hidden in secrecy. 10 Cloverfield Lane is bold film making, a successful, satisfying achievement. See it.
10 Cloverfield Lane (4.5 / 5)