Now this is a team that would’ve been fully prepared for Y2K. John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher, Jr. star in 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Director – Dan Trachtenberg
Screenplay – Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken & Damien Chazelle
Producer – J. J. Abrams & Lindsey Weber
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language
Following an argument with her fiancé, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves everything in her life behind for something new, but her plans are thwarted after getting into a terrible car accident. When she wakes up, she’s surprised to find herself chained to a basement wall. If her world hasn’t been turned upside down enough already, the mysterious owner of the bunker she’s currently residing in, Howard Stambler (John Goodman), shakes things up for even more when he informs her that the outside world has suffered a terrifying attack that has made the air unbreathable. For now, it’s just him, her and a construction worker, Emmett DeWitt (John Gallagher, Jr.), that’s protected from the devastation outside.
Howard insists to Michelle that he isn’t the bad guy, and that he saved her life, but as long as she’s down there, the question remains: Is Howard telling the truth about this supposed apocalypse, or is Michelle being held captive by a paranoid nutcase?
10 Cloverfield Lane is J. J. Abrams’s next “mystery box” film, though just as he did with 2008’s Cloverfield, he’s serving solely as producer here and not director. For those that aren’t aware of J. J.’s mystery box refers to the “less you know, the better” marketing campaign for various projects of his from the aforementioned Cloverfield, Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t (though I like Star Trek Into Darkness, it boggles my mind why Abrams and Paramount tried to keep Khan, one of Star Trek’s most iconic villains, a secret), but the tactic does do an effective job at stirring up intrigue within moviegoers.
Much like Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the sorta film that’s best going into cold. Even if you’ve seen the trailer, it’s the type of preview that gives you just enough to catch your attention, but still leaves you in the dark enough to keep you wondering what the hell is going on. Watching the mystery play out over the course of 10 Cloverfield Lane is one of the many genuine thrills this film has to offer.
The one whose name will get buried under the rug here is Dan Trachtenberg. J. J. Abrams may be the name the studio is plastering all over their posters and trailers to get butts in the seats, just as they did nearly a decade ago with Cloverfield, but Trachtenberg’s the director so it’s his vision we’re seeing on display. Developing Twilight Zone-esq tension with great ease, Trachtenberg keeps on edge with the screenplay’s (co-authored by a trio of scribes, Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Oscar nominee Damien Chazelle) guessing game of what the mystery actually is. Just when we think we might have it all figured out, or have concluded who’s right and who’s wrong, Trachtenberg and his team of writers bring about another effective turn that dials up the suspense even more.
Trachtenberg also mines great claustrophobic fear from Ramsey Avery’s production design and Michelle Marchand’s set decoration. For about 90% of the film, 10 Cloverfield Land takes place in one underground bunker, a post-apocalyptic Ted Kaczynski wet dream furnished in amazingly quaint, tacky glory as if a small-town Wal-Mart vomited all inside it. Though limited in setting, Trachtenberg, Avery and Marchand don’t skimp on the design, providing great detail to every square inch of Howard’s economy-sized dwelling, from the cutesy shower curtains to his yard sale style selection of board games and videos.
Elevating the tension further are the film’s three central performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher, Jr. Winstead, who raised herself up on my list of actresses to notice since her under-appreciated turn as a struggling alcoholic in Smashed, does fantastic work as Michelle. She brings just the right touch of vulnerability to all the surrounding circumstances that are currently plaguing her, but also displays a strong intellect and resourcefulness that makes her a lead character worth investing in.
Winstead has given fine supporting work before over the past decade in films like Live Free or Die Hard (since she’s barely in A Good Day to Die Hard, we won’t have to hold that crap-fest against her), Taratino’s Death Proof, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The Spectacular Now, but aside from Smashed, which was smaller, indie fare, she hasn’t had that star-making vehicle. Her turn here hopefully changes that.
John Goodman has been such an invaluable talent for nearly three decades, and is one of those rare talents that can effortlessly switch from lovably soft and goofy to intense and menacing at the snap of a finger. Howard is clearly a role that Goodman relishes playing and there’s not a second of his terrific performance that doesn’t have us on edge. Even at his most well-intentioned, there’s something volatile lurking beneath him that could allow him to go off at any moment. That no one knows just when the ticker inside his head will go off adds to the suspense.
John Gallagher, Jr. may not be getting the recognition that Goodman and Winstead are receiving, but his levity-providing performance still deserves mention. While his moments of comic relief are welcome in a film fraught with suspense, there’s more to Emmett as a character than just being the one-note funny guy.
My one criticism of the film is the final ten minutes. Now, does the ending ruin the film? No, not at all, but there’s a moment near the end where the film should’ve stopped and cued the end credits. Instead, J. J.’s influence seems to have taken hold of the ending as a way to either give away the mystery in detail and (or) slap a Cloverfield franchise tag on this flick. It’s not a deal breaker or anything, but I just wish Abrams resisted the urge to hold the viewers’ hands and let some key answers remain unanswered.
While it would’ve benefited from keeping its mystery under wraps and not spelling out to us what the terror outside actually is or isn’t, 10 Cloverfield Lane is still a taut, gripping suspense thriller that gets great use of its confined setting and fantastic acting trio. Whether or not it’s necessary for J. J. Abrams to squeeze a franchise out of what could’ve easily worked as a self-contained standalone film remains to be seen with any sequels that are released. For now, though, Dan Trachtenberg’s strong directorial debut stands as a pretty good way to start things out.
I give 10 Cloverfield Lane an A- (★★★½).