10 Cloverfield Lane (United States, 2016)

March 10, 2016
A movie review by James Berardinelli
10 Cloverfield Lane Poster

When J.J. Abrams released Cloverfield in 2008, it arrived cloaked in secrecy. Now, some eight years later, the film’s so-called “blood relative” (Abrams’ term, not mine), comes with a similar marketing strategy. Going-in, viewers are unlikely to be certain what to expect and, emerging, they might not be quite sure exactly what they witnessed.  The problems with 10 Cloverfield Lane result from attempts to tie it, however tenuously, to the earlier movie. Take away the disappointing, disjointed, and anti-climactic final act, and this is an effective white-knuckle psychological thriller. And, although the final 15 minutes don’t ruin the movie, they detract from its better parts.

The premise is simple: following a car accident, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakens to find herself chained to a wall in what appears to be a basement. She soon learns that she has been brought to this place by the hulking, rather scary Howard (John Goodman), for her “own good.” The basement is actually a doomsday bunker with three occupants: survivalist Howard; his former handyman, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.); and Michelle, whom Howard rescued from her smashed car. In the outside world, all is not well. According to Howard, apocalyptic events have occurred. His plan is for the three of them to shelter in place and wait it out until things are safe. Michelle thinks he’s crazy. Emmett isn’t so certain.

By using double-bluffs and red herrings, director Dan Trachtenberg crafts a claustrophobic psychological thriller that hums along nicely. Hitchcockian misdirection abounds. From moment-to-moment we’re never quite sure who (or what) Howard really is: a lonely savior whose paranoia has been validated or a creepy kidnapper acting out a twisted delusion? Is the situation outside the bunker real or a figment of Howard’s warped mind? Did “the Ruskies” attack? Or aliens? Or nothing at all? Perhaps Howard faked the mutilations of some pigs to “prove” that the air isn’t safe? So many questions… At times, 10 Cloverfield Lane has a similar vibe as the TV series Lost which, not coincidentally, was produced by Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions.

While keeping us guessing, 10 Cloverfield Lane provides several nail-biting scenes. Sound is an important part of how the tension is amplified - every noise is loud and the insistent musical score throbs. 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t employ “found footage” like the original Cloverfield. Camera movement is smooth and clean and the shots are composed to emphasize how cramped and uncomfortable the limited space is. The movie is presented from Michelle’s perspective and its tone varies with her mood. Her opinion of Howard and the situation changes frequently and the film reflects that. There’s even a goofy musical montage that shows the three companions playing board games and putting together puzzles like any “normal” family.

Winstead is a good choice to play the heroine because she’s strong yet feminine. (She previously appeared as Bruce Willis’ daughter in the fourth Die Hard film and as the lead in the prequel to John Carptenter’s The Thing.) John Goodman is a perfect Howard - Goodman has the rare talent of being able to play both a cuddly, likeable guy and a frighteningly dangerous one. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, he’s asked to do both.

The film’s failing is that, in linking it to Cloverfield, it abandons the elements that made the majority of the movie effective. The final fifteen minutes don’t work as a way to wrap up this story or as an introduction to a larger (generic) canvas. They feel tacked-on and rushed. Nevertheless, as weak as the conclusion may be, it doesn’t obfuscate the good things to precede it. 10 Cloverfield Lane is packed with suspense and tension and offers some of the best bait-and-switch work of any recent psychological thriller. It’s easy to forgive any missteps toward the end when considering the entire package.

10 Cloverfield Lane (United States, 2016)

Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.
Home Release Date: 2016-06-14
Screenplay: Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle
Cinematography: Jeff Cutter
Music: Bear McCreary
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2016-03-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Disturbing Images, Profanity)
Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1