Curbstomping Cinema: 10 Cloverfield Lane
Basic Summary: A young woman is abducted by a mysterious old man and locked in his bunker while he claims the outside world is ending.
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg
Written by: Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken.
Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
For the unaware, 10 Cloverfield Lane follows Michelle, a young, resourceful fashion artist whose car is run off the road while she flees a rocky relationship. Waking up in a vast underground bomb shelter, Michelle is introduced to its owner Howard and fellow guest Emmett. Claiming that the country has been attacked and that the air outside is too toxic for life to survive, Howard forces Michelle and Emmett to live under his ironclad set of rules. And, although Michelle is ostensibly safe, she soon finds herself forced to question whether death would be worth escaping Howard’s clutches…
I was looking forward to this movie with cautiously bated breath since its shocking announcement in January. I have more love for the original Cloverfield than a lot of people seem to, but I recognize that it’s a heavily flawed film that alienates audiences with its relatively unremarkable characters, unsatisfying resolution, and above all else, camerawork so jittery it easily induces nausea and headaches in some.
Pictured: Cloverfield's star cuts filming to help resuscitate a fainted cameraman.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a different beast altogether: a traditionally shot, slow-burning, isolated character thriller. But do these changes make for a movie even Cloverfield haters can enjoy?
Let’s begin with the story. By nature, a thriller can’t function to any degree if the plot is shit; this plot is decidedly not. It’s expertly written and maintains a gripping pace and sense of suspense from the cryptic, ominous opening moments to the equally foreboding final shots. Every time the situation feels like it’s calming, the tension explodes, be it in the form of a disturbing new discovery by our protagonists or a violent altercation that rarely ends with the status quo in place. I was pleased to see the “Michelle glasses Howard and breaks for the door” scenario from the trailers arrive within the first act; it being the most direct form of physical conflict between Michelle and Howard depicted in the advertising, the scene’s arrival and surprising resolution leaves the door open for ever more brilliant thrills, chills, and even a few tearjerkers.
Through it all, the question of what exactly is going in the outside world that made Howard kidnap Michelle lingers in your mind. Has the US suffered a nationwide chemical attack, as Howard postulates initially? Is it an alien invasion? Is it another giant monster, of the same species or otherwise? Is it something else entirely, or is it nothing at all? Plenty of evidence springs up for a lot of theories, and it takes a long time to get any definitive answers. One minute you’ll be dead set on the idea that Howard is a tinfoil hat psychopath needlessly keeping two innocent people hostage, the next minute it seems indisputable that everything he says is true, and the next you’ll be going back on that notion, crafting a new one of your own, or sticking with it while gauging whether they would just be better off dealing with the surface threat than locked in with Howard. And so on and so forth.
The finale is a bit of a mixed bag for me, but not in a significant enough way to seriously detract from my enjoyment. The first half of the climactic scenes provide some of the most knuckle-whitening, adrenaline-pumping action since the finale of The Revenant (albeit not quite as nihilistically grotesque), and my eyes were glued to the screen throughout. It’s a perfect cap on the central character dynamics. The scenes following it, though, are dragged out just a bit too long. They make their point quickly and are very cool in concept, but what’s initially an open-armed welcome is worn out all too soon, leaving the high-octane set piece where the majority of the budget was clearly spent an unexpectedly dull affair. Nevertheless, the ending provides an exciting window into the possibility of further films in the Cloverfield franchise; after this, I am completely open to the idea.
I didn’t expect to love the three leads across the board as much as I did, but the small cast of characters the film follows are breathtaking in both development and performance.
Michelle is one of the strongest female leads in a mainstream Hollywood film I’ve seen in a while, and an excellent lead period. She solves the toughest problems efficiently with her intellect, drive, and boundless resourcefulness, but she’s far from overpowered and her survival is never an absolute certainty. She’s a sweet and caring person who’s easy to instantly root for, but as a human being, she has clear and present flaws that continuously play into the narrative. She holds up her half of the cat-and-mouse game remarkably well.
There’s also a refreshing lack of a tacked-on “girl power” message to her conflict with Howard; it would have been easy to take a movie about a young woman being held captive by a creepy older man and wring stock feminist crowd-pleasers out of it, but while there are some subtle and tactfully presented themes of abuse, at its core it’s just a powder-keg situation with two intelligent people butting heads with each other, and that’s how it should be treated.
Emmett is a wild card going in. He’s featured the least in the advertising, mostly playing a background role while the dynamic between Michelle and Howard has been emphasized. Don’t let his underexposure fool you. An optimistic gentleman who believes in the safety Howard provides, he’s as much a protagonist in his own right as Michelle, with his own backstory, set of quirks and flaws, and compelling arc that has repercussions for the other two characters. John Gallagher Jr.’s performance is a highlight of the film, and his great chemistry with Winstead and Goodman allows him to carry many of the film’s funnier moments on his shoulders.
However, as most reviews will echo, it’s John Goodman’s Howard that steals the show without question. From his introduction, you know he’s the antagonist in the conflict and you’re predisposed toward judging him harshly, especially when he starts spouting off lunacy about nuclear attacks and superweapon-driven invasions by an ever-changing enemy. However, the film derives much of its suspense from keeping you guessing as to whether he’s telling the truth or not, and to what degree you should trust him. He’s certainly got unexpected layers and charming aspects. He’s not always a creepy asshole and is able to put on a friendly face every so often, and Goodman’s natural charisma plays into Howard’s authoritarian role in a way that occasionally makes him come off almost trustworthy.
Whether he’s right about his justifications and puts on a good face, though, doesn’t change his actions: he’s an endlessly creepy ticking time bomb ready to explode at any moment, and it never ends happily when he does. The moments when the kindly old smile just drops from his face in a heartbeat usually lead up to the film’s most unforgettable scenes. This man is unpredictable, and that’s the best thing a thriller antagonist can be.
The cinematography deserves praise, too. Even leaving out the previous film’s found footage conceit, the camerawork mostly eschews any sort of shaky-cam in favor of still, precise shots. Whether Michelle is in a small side room or the open common area, every stretch of the bunker is made to feel stiflingly claustrophobic, and Howard looms threateningly over Michelle and Emmett in every frame he’s in. The intense situations, including the title credits sequence that jolted half the audience out of their seats in my theater, are framed just so to make you feel as trapped and helpless as Michelle and Emmett often find themselves.
But very few movies are perfect, and I would be lying if I said there wasn’t one major thing in 10 Cloverfield Lane that disappointed me. Unfortunately, I can’t go into any specifics here, as the film is meant to be experienced as a mystery box for you to open on your own, so even hinting at what let me down would be a massive spoiler (particularly as it has to do with some late-story revelations). If need be, I’ll post the complaint below this review in spoiler tags.
My ambiguous complaint and the dragging nature of the climax aside, 10 Cloverfield Lane is among the best movies I’ve seen in the year thus far. If you like confined thrillers or stories driven by a small cast of highly developed and interesting characters, loved the previous Cloverfield movie, or are just the slightest bit curious what all of the mysterious buzz is about, I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Rating: Delicious As A Fresh Cup of Slusho!
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