Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Can we all just agree that 10 Cloverfield Lane’s alleged connection to the 2008 found footage monster film Cloverfield is a heap of garbage? That would make the rest of this review a whole lot easier. Put a pin in that title, which sounds more like a sequel to 9 Chickweed Lane anyway. Throw a sheet over the viral marketing campaign. And clear a special place in your septic tank for that snake oil salesman J. J. Abrams’ rickety claim that the films are “blood relatives.” And gag me with a spoon.
There. Now doesn’t that feel better?
In 10 Cloverfield Lane, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a young woman on the run from a boyfriend, who runs straight into the arms of somebody much worse. After a car accident, she wakes up in the underground bunker of the surly and intimidating Howard (John Goodman, in his first non-Pixar role as a monster). Howard tells her that there has been an attack on American soil, the air is tainted, and that everybody outside the bunker is dead. Never certain whether or not she should believe the man who is holding her hostage while claiming to have saved her life, he must survive the bunker for as long as possible with Howard and the clueless handyman Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) until she can figure it out.
It’s a real Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt story, to be sure.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a small-scale film by necessity. Three actors, a handful of rooms, and the occasional overhead rumble aren’t exactly the stuff of Cecil B. DeMille style epics. However, the film doesn’t suffer for its smallness. Certain conversations in the film begin to chafe at the limited amount of shots available, but these rough patches are thankfully infrequent.
What the intimate setting truly achieves is a constant tension, an unflagging awareness of Michelle’s lack of privacy. She is trapped with a bipolar lunatic, her three-room world a sinister microcosm of the evils hat might be lurking aboveground. She’s pretty literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. Of course, none of this atmosphere would be quite as effective without the cornerstone of 10 Cloverfield Lane: John Goodman.
Goodman, of course, is a reasonably well-respected actor despite a rather profound lack of leading roles, but here he proves his worth as an endlessly versatile character actor. He dominates the screen, both with his size and sheer personality, exuding a sinister aura that clings to everything it touches. His shifting, sinister performance is far from over-the-top, which could have derailed such a tiny film, instead lurking in that oh so subtle realm of banal evil.
He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, papering a kind face over a bristling maw of anger that constantly lurks beneath the surface. He’s so compelling, in fact, that even when he’s not onscreen, you can still feel his presence looming omnipotently over every scene. Of course, it helps that he has two solid performers to play off of. Winstead is an ever-reliable genre presence who certainly earns her keep, and Gallagher’s dopey kindness provides an excellent foil, but Goodman is the star of the show and by God he earns it.
That’s what you get for finding a stranger in the Alps.
Goodman may be the crux of this operation, but 10 Cloverfield Lane likewise could not have survived without Ramsey Avery’s production design, a perfect evocation of the film’s peculiar tone. The slick metal and sharp edges of the bunker are softened with an outwardly cheery layer of homey, rustic decoration that contrast both with the harshness of the environs and the aggressive gruffness of Howard. It’s a wickedly playful set, one that exquisitely evokes the same dark sense of humor that produced this incredible pairing of music and material in the trailer.
And while the production design might provide a subtle juxtaposition, the sound design is here to remind us that this film can jar us out of our seats. A perilously indelicate combination of stark silence, far-off rumblings, and in-your-face shrillness, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s soundscape pummels you within an inch of your life. It’s nothing less than abrasive poetry designed to startle and to pummel.
All of these elements collide during the film’s best sequence: A game of Taboo that’s more unsettling than anything that’s been seen in theaters this year. It’s an intricate, successful attempt at combining the film’s best assets in a meticulously-crafted moment that’s simultaneously an unnerving character development, a canny switcheroo, and a genuinely threatening perversion of banal family life. It’s pretty much perfect.
And after that paragraph, I don’t feel so bad airing a couple grievances as we close out this review. Obviously, there’s those back-and-forth conversation scenes that can get a little drab, and a couple scenes repeat the same beats a little too close to each other, but for the most part my only real issue is with a rather crude character arc that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is jammed into. Well, that and a pretty dopey climax.
But that’s not enough to sink what is a very well-constructed ship. 10 Cloverfield Lane is an excellent, original exercise in small-scale psychological drama and it’s a superb way to spend a night out. Try not to come to it with any expectations based on that majestically idiotic title, and you’ll be golden.
TL;DR: 10 Cloverfield Lane is a solid, tense little film.
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