New Movie Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane A Master Class in Misdirection and Tension
In 2008, the original Cloverfield created a viral marketing campaign that resonated with audiences by creating a mystique of originality and unpredictability. It managed to make a big splash at the box office on its debut, but quickly faded. Much like The Blair Witch Project, the big draw had been the mystery generated by the media blitz, and once the actual project landed, it didn’t quite live up to the hype. This year, a non-sequel successor, 10 Cloverfield Lane, tried the reverse approach: a surprise trailer landing in the dead of winter, followed by mostly silence and cryptic non-answers from the production team about the link to the original. Before we knew it, the movie had arrived.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a hell of movie. I’ll get that out-of-the-way right up front. Where the original may have over-promised and under-delivered, this film did the exact opposite. Besides a stellar cast, I had no real conception of what this movie would be. Frankly, I just thought John Goodman looked good in the trailer and was intrigued to see how it related to the first film, since I love giant monster movies. Director Dan Trachetenberg leverages this uncertainty for the entire length of the production, serving up a heaping dose of tension, dread, horror, and mystery. I don’t want to spoil any of it, so if you’re looking for a quick take, here it is: Go see this movie!
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Michelle is a young woman fleeing some personal demons. On a lonely stretch of country road, her problems multiply when her car is driven off the road by another motorist. She awakens inside a bunker constructed by an eccentric doomsday prepper named Howard, who informs her that the world has gone to hell. Some sort of attack has happened, sterilizing the surface, and he only had enough time to save her and the slightly dimwitted young man, Emmet, who helped him create the bunker. Faced with the proposition of several years underground with two strangers, Michelle has to decide how much of their story she actually believes.
10 Cloverfield Lane makes the most of its mysterious premise by continually casting doubts about every fact in the plot. Every time you are given a tid-bit of information, it is subverted and called into question. The film plays like a murder mystery where we haven’t found the body yet. Everyone is suspect, and yet even the crime itself may be suspect. Trachtenberg loves to invert the narrative, calling everything into question, and only occasionally providing any definite answer. Instead, he scatters clues and calling-cards around the film, allowing the audience to piece together much of the mystery naturally. This tactic pays off in spades thanks to excellent use of sound (and the sudden absence of sound), a great script, and to the terrific cast.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, and provides an excellent surrogate for the audience. She is resourceful and tough-minded, while remaining realistic and relate-able. From the get-go, we know she is capable. While she does have moments of doubt and fear, she never falls into the clichés that haunt the leading heroine in a horror movie. She experiences the mystery of the film much like the audience, so her moments of trepidation and self-doubt mirror the actual events, and give us subtle cues as to which information to trust and which to hold as suspect. I never felt manipulated by the plot, and a large part of that feeling came from how organic her performance was to the piece.
Going into the film, I expected great things from John Goodman, and I was not disappointed. His character, Howard, is a paranoid veteran with years of experience honing his survival skills…and psychosis. You never know where you stand with Howard, who is happily explaining a memory of his daughter before pivoting into a rage about some perceived slight from his two “house guests.” His behavior is seemingly erratic, but not irrational. He has a whole calculus going on under his surface, and Goodman is fantastic at portraying it. Just like Michelle, Howard feels completely natural. It doesn’t feel like someone giving a good performance of a broken and secretive individual, it feels like actually being stuck in a room with such a person.
Twist the Night Away
10 Cloverfield Lane was thoroughly engaging, and a real pleasure to watch unfold. The plot is filled with twists and sudden reversals, but to repeat myself, it felt completely natural and organic to the story. There’s no M. Knight hand waving, or sudden twists just for the sake of being clever. Every time you feel you have a handle on the story, a new wrinkle comes up that casts doubt on everything. Several times, I felt like the script had painted itself into a corner, and suddenly a new angle pops up that carries the film forward in a slightly different direction. It was a revelation, and I could easily plunk down my money for a chance to see it all again. I feel this is film that is going to reward repeated viewings, and I do recommend catching it at least once on the big screen. The immersive sound work adds so much to the experience, and there are plenty of big visual moments to keep you glued to your seat. A fantastic and unexpected gem of a movie.