Written by: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damian Chazelle
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg
Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and John Gallagher
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Don't open that door! You're going to get all of us killed!"
Usually, it's not only fair but downright imperative to divorce a finished film from the promotion that heralded it into theaters, but 10 Cloverfield Lane practically demands to be considered in terms of its marketing. As is often the case when dealing with J.J. Abrams, this is a different beast, one born out of a hype culture that its producer has cultivated during the past decade. Perhaps more than any other filmmaker, Abrams embraces this swirl of hype and essentially blends it into an experience codified by his “mystery box” ethos. His latest production—which was stealthily shot and officially unveiled only two months before its release—may be the platonic ideal of this approach.
In a paradoxical twist, the relatively restrained deployment of 10 Cloverfield Lane—in conjunction with such a loaded title—has only stoked the fires more. You arrive at the film wondering just what in the hell it is, particularly its relationship to Matt Reeves's 2008 film. Is it a sequel? A spiritual successor? Something different altogether? This is one of several layers of intrigue to sort through with 10 Cloverfield Lane, which is something of a mystery box reconfigured as a Russian nesting doll hoarding that hoards secrets within its secrets.
Frankly, the dilly-dally surrounding its status is a sequel is actually the least intriguing aspect here. To be clear, 10 Cloverfield Lane is only a thematic sequel at best, one that transforms the Cloverfield brand into an anthology that takes monsters as its theme. This particular entry centers on an almost banal form of human monstrosity, as Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself fleeing from a tumultuous relationship, only to land in the clutches of paranoid doomsday prepper Howard (John Goodman) following a car accident. Considering he’s literally chained her up in his basement, she’s skeptical when he claims the outside world has been ravaged by a mysterious attack that’s left the air too poisonous to breathe. Clearly, this unhinged man has constructed an elaborate scheme to kidnap her and keep her from leaving—or has he?
That is the more pertinent question resting at the heart of 10 Cloverfield Lane, and its answer is teased out by a clever script that coyly unspools, leading the audience in one direction before redirecting them towards another. Topsy-turvy filmmaking at its sharpest, the film aims to disorient and unsettle through a creeping realization that something is awry with the situation, even when Michelle more or less settles in with Howard and Emmett (John Gallagher), a young man who helped to construct the underground bunker that becomes their home. Together, they eat dinner, complete puzzles, and watch something called Cannibal Airlines. Life is obviously not perfect, but it beats choking to death in a radioactive wasteland, especially since these three are essentially a bunch of (possibly) well-meaning fuck-ups.
Still, something unsettles about Howard’s almost cutthroat insistence on recreating an artificial family dynamic. Even before Michelle and Emmett begin to notice disturbing holes in Howard’s stories and begin piecing together troubling clues about his past exploits, director Dan Trachtenberg infuses even the most mundane moments with unbearable tension: dinner table conversations become intense, suffocating moments, as furtive glances and pointed dialogue become something like Hitchcock’s bomb under the table, waiting to explode in everyone’s face. The steel door that seals off Michelle’s room is a masterclass in sound design, as the innocuous act of someone walking in becomes a startling proposition: the latch makes an ear-shattering screech, while it slams shut with a deafening thud.
It’s rare that a film can coax jolts from such seemingly harmless actions, but it’s not as if the secret to this is stored in some undisclosed formula that’s buried under lock and key. Despite its clandestine production, 10 Cloverfield Lane is straightforward in its effectiveness: it’s no big surprise that it works because Trachtenberg and a trio of screenwriters have crafted a set of compelling characters that sing thanks to some finely-pitched performances.
Goodman is the fascinating enigma lording over this exactingly crafted mystery, capable of transforming from his endearing, paternalistic sitcom persona to a terrifying, wild-eyed lunatic within a moment’s notice. Every reveal that Michelle sifts through doesn’t just function as motivation for her to plot an escape, as they also add layers to Howard’s own motivations, which blend a heartbreaking backstory with a gross predilection for younger girls (one of the most subtly disturbing involves Howard’s decision to shave in what may be the creepiest possible payoff to the film’s earlier use of “I Think We’re Alone Now”). The script deftly manipulates the audience into changing their feelings Howard, positioning both Emmett and Michelle as surrogates, with the former functioning as a sort of wise-ass charmer whose sweet, disarming qualities set up the film’s most jarring moment, the irrecoverable point of no return that Michelle—a girl perpetually on the run from life—must confront.
To say that she’s prepared is an understatement. In what could have been a thankless role, Winstead finds herself caught between two motor-mouths but cannily recedes into the background, constantly scheming and plotting. It’s a subtle turn, but a fantastic one that conveys Michelle’s uncanny resourcefulness with remarkable economy: even though she’s haunted by her own inability to confront her problems, she’s nonetheless fiercely clever, not to mention extremely capable of navigating both the bunker and the minefield of interpersonal dynamics through which she tiptoes. Watching her craftily operate is both thrilling and fascinating—10 Cloverfield Lane is a sort of cat-and-mouse game where the cat greatly underestimates the mouse's cleverness.
What’s remarkable is how the cat-and-mouse element is layered into every façade of the puzzle box that is 10 Cloverfield Lane. Even though this is a film with several moving parts, it never feels like Trachtenberg is obviously tinkering around, as each movement glides seamlessly into the next. An inevitable sense of doom underlies each transition, highlighted by Bear McCreary’s ominous score and Jeff Cutter’s intimate camerawork. The latter especially turns the screws, transforming this fallout bunker into a crucible where every crevice and corner holds potential salvation or damnation in equal measure.
Close-ups and tight framing predictably heighten the suffocation and claustrophobia, but Trachtenberg’s precise grasp of space and geography is commendable. While 10 Cloverfield Lane might only center on three characters confined to a small, underground bunker, the camera explores nearly every inch of the place, from the makeshift bathroom to the ventilation shafts. Nearly each space hosts its own particular battle as this trio uncomfortably circles about each other, each waiting to make their move.
Watching Michelle, Howard, and Emmett interact makes for a tightly tuned chamber drama, one that eventually yields to a survival thriller before dovetailing into something completely different altogether. Thanks in large part to its propulsive script (and, yes, in small part to the mystery box marketing), 10 Cloverfield Lane moves in such a way that its audience is constantly looking over their shoulder and looking ahead all at once, tantalized especially by the carrot dangling outside of the bunker: what—if anything—is actually out there, waiting to strike? The answer is odd but satisfying; it may feel as though it’s been conjured from an entirely different movie, but Trachtenberg and company coax the audience into going with it because the characters seem to be just as bemused by the revelation. “Really?!” one of them asks after realizing they’ve escaped the frying pan but have stumbled into the fire of a post-apocalyptic holocaust.
The nature of the film’s climax is certainly complicated, especially in light of a title that sets certain expectations that many will argue aren’t met. 10 Cloverfield Lane may be this generation’s Halloween III moment, as expectant audiences may react strongly to the decision to make this franchise a Bad Robot monster movie anthology. Only time will tell if it’ll go on to be a cult classic that future fans will insist would have seen a better fate had it been released without the Cloverfield branding.
As someone who would like to see Hollywood take more risks, I applaud the effort to sneak this bizarre little sci-fi indy drama into theaters, even if it required a cynical marketing ploy. In many ways, it’s not far removed from the tactics of the old school hucksters from the drive-in and exploitation circuits. We look back fondly on their shameless attempts to rope audiences into their movies by any means necessary—maybe J.J. Abrams deserves the same kind of reverence in this case. You could do worse than to smuggle something like 10 Cloverfield Lane onto thousands of theater screens because widely-released genre films are rarely this bold and character rich.
Besides, once you’ve shaken out its contents and tossed the mystery box aside, you’re simply left with 10 Cloverfield Lane itself, one of the finest movies with which Abrams has been associated. Where his track record as a director is spotty at best, he’s been a sharp cultivator of talent as a producer: between this film and its predecessor, the likes of Drew Goddard, Matt Reeves, and Damien Chazelle have been given room to roam within this growing Bad Robot universe. It’d be a shame to forget that this (and now Trachtenberg’s) talent is more indelible than any mystery box shenanigans.
After stripping everything away, you’re more or less left with the sort of film everyone expected M. Night Shyamalan would make for his entire career: a small, intimately-pitched affair couched inside of larger genre trappings. Just as the likes of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are human dramas respectively nestled within a ghost story and a comic book tale, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an intense, riveting drama threaded through a multi-tiered survival thriller that forges Michelle’s fight or flight mechanism out of acid and flames.
As we watch her skulk through ventilation systems, we sense this is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Die Hard riff; by the end, we realize she’s not only become the heir apparent to John McClane, but also to Ellen Ripley. Few films ever sound that badass, let alone pull it off as well as this one.
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