10 Cloverfield Lane
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg
Written by: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.
If there’s anything more impressive than how J.J. Abrams kept the plot of The Force Awakens hushed before its release, it is keeping this film completely in the shadows and then dropping the news right before its release. It seems so uncommon to pull off an endeavor like this in today’s trailer-saturated era of film marketing. Lightning did strike twice as they were able to recreate the intriguing viral marketing that paid off well for the original Cloverfield. Abrams has made it clear that 10 Cloverfield Lane is not an official sequel to the 2008 handheld monster flick. Some will surely find this as an easy excuse to be disappointed, but those expectations should not dismiss what is an effectively tense and creepy thrill ride.
The film opens with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) running away from a fight with her boyfriend. Minutes later she wakes up chained to a wall in a desolate room. In walks Howard (John Goodman) who claims he rescued her from a nuclear attack that has contaminated the air and is keeping them safe underground in his bunker. The only other person is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) who allegedly tried to break in, which resulted in a broken arm. Emmett buys Howard’s warnings while Michelle possesses a natural skepticism. This skepticism causes friction with Howard’s unstable nature which presents itself in verbal and violent ways.
The standout performance which is truly deserving of all acclaim it is getting is John Goodman’s. It’s a real testament to how noteworthy a character actor Goodman is as he brings so much fear and horror to a relatively one-note character. His manner shifts from calmly serious to nervously awkward to truly terrifying. As the film progresses, subtle but troubling layers of his past are revealed which juxtapose questionable tragedy with
alarming menace. Mary Elizabeth Winstead really shines in what may be her best performance to date. She doesn’t slip into conventional “dumb but hot” protagonist which populates many horror movies. She encaptures the fearful but driven energy of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and stands strong against Goodman. John Gallagher Jr. gives a serviceable performance but helps to defuse the tension with some drops of humor.
What is truly admirable is how a film like this, playing in IMAX, is so small. The entire film is these three characters trapped in a setting with themselves and the claustrophobic tension which rises amongst them. Suspense escalates so naturally and forcefully in a Hitchcock style that it makes first-time director Dan Trachtenberg look like a seasoned pro. Abrams’ touch is still evident as this feels almost like something that was left on the cutting room floor for Lost, but also plays like an extended Twilight Zone episode. From start till end credits you can see the smoke from Rod Serling’s cigarette all over this film. This franchise already seems to be following suit as an anthology weaving science-fiction, horror, and fantasy into a tapestry of imaginative wonder. While this film is independent from its predecessor, they both possess narratives involving characters who are thrown into dire situations with little information to work with. The intentional vagueness will surely not work for everyone, but it places us alongside the characters for this nerve-racking joy ride.
Abrams has stated that this film and the original are like, “two different rides at the same amusement park.” That statement gives clarity to the detachment of these two movies but also informs as to what is to be gained from the viewing. Much like Cloverfield, this movie is a visceral experience that has fun with the scares and throws in unexpected turns and twists like it is a haunted house attraction. The previous installment was a chaotic and exhausting race fueled by grand and immediate terror. This time it’s a close-quartered exercise in potboiling trepidation. 10 Cloverfield Lane relies on old-school tricks and a dose of Spielberg spectacle which was shown in Abrams’ love letter to the director, Super 8. Its thrills are so vintage you almost expect Orson Welles to present an opening monologue. If this is to continue as a series of one-off nightmare roller coaster rides demanding to be seen on the biggest screen, then this will be one of the more enthralling franchises going. — James Leggett