So here’s another film with “Cloverfield” in the title from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, and like the first one back in 2008, it has snuck up on us with no fanfare – and still piqued the curiosity of many moviegoers.
Is it a sequel to that found-footage monster movie? Is it a different story altogether but set in a “shared universe”? Or is it just part of an anthology of films that happen to have “Cloverfield” in the title?
What we can confirm is that it’s not found footage and therefore, no shaky cam, yay!
The thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane (10CL) is that it’s a prime example of “the less you know, the better”; so here’s as much “less” as we can give to preserve our good health.
10CL is basically three people stuck in a doomsday bunker: its builder, ex-Navy man and conspiracy nut Howard (John Goodman); accident victim Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is rescued by Howard and brought inside; and local handyman Emmett (John Gallagher Jr), who helped build the shelter under Howard’s farmhouse.
And that’s it, really. All the others have to go on is Howard’s word that they cannot go back outside because there’s been an attack of some kind and the air is unbreathable.
Emmett claims he witnessed the attack, though his credibility is sort of dodgy; he seems like the kind of guy who would stay in a Wayne Enterprises highrise office while Metropolis was being demolished around him because the boss didn’t say people could leave yet.
Michelle is a fighter, or at least fancies herself one, and keeps trying to find a way out.
And Howard … ah, Howard. While 10CL is an ensemble-ish thing, it is really Goodman who makes everything work so well. His benevolent Santa-like appearance hides a scary core, prone to bursts of rage and constant, menacing implications of what awaits either of his bunker-mates if he feels they have abused his generosity to a point beyond forgiveness.
He plays very well off Winstead’s spirited yet vulnerable/hesitant character by coming on as a protective father figure, while barely tolerating Gallagher’s lifelong slacker dude, sometimes within the same frame.
Trust me, even the way Howard’s breathing changes when he starts getting agitated is enough to make you tense up in anticipation.
And after you see the inner Howard a couple of times, everything from that point becomes a masterclass in ratcheting up suspense to excruciating levels.
There were times I could barely keep from turning away in fear of what Howard might do next. Even a game of Taboo (you know, that word-guessing game) in the film is enough to make every sphincter in your body clench up to the point you might need muscle relaxants to go to the bathroom later.
Kudos to first-time feature director Dan Trachtenberg for canny use of the confined setting – almost sitcom-like camera set-ups, lingering shots, amplified sounds – to turn the bunker into a pressure cooker for the viewer.
Surprisingly, even Bear McCreary’s somewhat prominent music score is more complementary than intrusive in such a claustrophobic atmosphere.
A big hand, too, for writers Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) for having enough confidence in the audience to peel away the layers of this particular onion without too much exposition.
We know these tropes, and they know we know how to feel/what to think about them, so … yeah. High fives all round, fellas, for understanding that we understand.
But 10CL’s underground idyll cannot last forever, and there comes a time when the filmmakers feel compelled to give us the obligatory Big Reveal. I wish they hadn’t, to be honest; because, unfortunately, this is by far the weaker portion of the film.
It almost makes you want to rush back in for more bunker-bound tension, to go back for an extended visit with captor and captives alike. How’s that for a cinematic spin on Stockholm syndrome?
10 Cloverfield Lane
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr