Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher, Jr.
Written by: Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg
Rated ‘PG-13’ for language, violence, unnerving trauma and uncertainty about reality
Runtime 103 minutes
You awake in a bomb shelter, chained to a wall. Your head has been damaged, your leg broken. A man comes in and tells you the world has ended, and that but through the grace of god, you have been saved because he was the one who saved you.
How do you respond?
It’s a frightfully tense scenario, and it all plays out at 10 Cloverfield Lane, the new film from producer JJ Abrams. While not a true sequel to the original, found footage darling Cloverfield (Review 1/2, Review 2/2) from years ago, the new film shares many of the same features. Though it drops the first person camera shtick for more traditional cinematography, it retains the original’s sense of mystery and horror. In fact, it is a more complete and terrifying film altogether because it does not attempt to remake and outdo the first; it takes the notion of an ‘attack’, and all of the vagaries that entails, and wraps it in a personal story of survival that has you second guessing your reality nearly every step of the way.
10 Cloverfield Lane opens in nearly wordless montage; we see Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) frantically packing up her things. Slowly, methodically, we come to understand why: she’s running away, leaving behind a fiancee. Director Dan Trachtenberg illuminates the tale, which is familiar and heartbreaking, without a sound, save for a voicemail that Michelle listens to. And then, as if we have never heard anything before in the world, the crash. Waking up, Michelle finds herself in that scenario presented above and this is where the real magic of 10 Cloverfield Lane begins. Whereas the original only ever hinted at the madness wreaking havoc across New York, in the sequel, we’re not even sure if there is madness. Everything that Howard (John Goodman) says sounds crazy, yet strangely plausible. By the same token, however, everything he says also cannot be verified. Isn’t it convenient that the air above is ‘contaminated’ and no one can leave this bomb shelter he’s spent years building? At 10 Cloverfield Lane, the truth is always in doubt because the messenger of that truth has behaved improperly. He did kidnap Michelle after all. People who want to protect you don’t go around and kidnap you.
10 Cloverfield Lane is the movie I kept thinking Room (review) was going to be: there is something wrong with the world. Now, I am glad Room ended up the way it was, but a small part of me remains that wishes it had been more genre, had been about the horrors of the world outside. There, I kept expecting the other shoe to drop, for the curtain to pull back and reveal a barren hellscape; here, I was so enthralled with the goings on inside that I wanted these characters to stick around for the entire running length. Bonus: each film features a Scott Pilgrim alum having to break free from an enclosed space!
Joining Michelle and Howard inside the bunker is the bearded, sweet and somewhat incurious Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), who forced his way into the bunker as Howard was closing the door. Certain about Howard’s motives at first, through some wonderful dialogue and interactions with Michelle, his faith in his savior begins to crack as truths about the past begin to surface. The movie begs the question: can you overlook the past for your own survival?
Each actor delivers a phenomenal performance. In a way, it’s a film that reminds me of another three-actor tour de force from last year, Ex Machina (the movie Alicia Vikander actually won the Oscar for; review). Small, enclosed area, no one can leave, and you are constantly wondering what exactly the truth is. However, MVP of this show is Goodman who creates a layered, chilling and at times, sweet and loving character in Howard. Long a bit player in numerous films, Goodman delivers the performance of his career and while it is too early to talk prizes, expect numerous online film critics to rally to his banner come awards season this year. The story may be about Michelle and her journey towards discovery – towards facing adversity and not just running – but Trachtenberg and crew create one hell of an obstacle in Howard.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a taut and insanely nerve-wracking psychological thriller. A powder keg just yearning to explode. You’re never sure what exactly will set the whole thing ablaze, so you sit with your hands grasping the armrest nearly the entire way. Even during the third act switch, in which the truth is finally out, you can’t rest. Salvation is just another obstacle to overcome and there are times, like in the original Cloverfield, if you wonder if it were all for naught. What emerges is not only a strong story, but an early front runner for top 10 of the year. So few films surprise us nowadays. Cloverfield came out of nowhere with its amazing trailer and took the world by storm; 10 Cloverfield Lane works in much the same way: it rewards patience and ignorance. It is the perfect example of the much reviled ‘mystery box’ that Abrams is known for; except this mystery keeps you on your toes not because of what it does or does not reveal, but because it remembers that a mystery box is only as good as the characters and conflict you put inside.