You have to hand it to Bad Robot Productions, the production company owned by filmmaker J.J. Abrams. They’ve managed to make a “Cloverfield” picture on the down low, working under the name Valencia and unveiling the first trailer around a month before the film’s release. We’ve been drip-fed bits of information during the film’s smart little marketing campaign, and now it’s here.
10 Cloverfield Lane proves itself to be a little difficult to review without spoiling what it has to offer. It’s a story that is as much about the journey as it is about the destination, so keep in mind that you won’t come across revelations in this review.
In a quick, no-nonsense intro, we learn that our lead protagonist, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), is breaking up with her other half and is leaving town. On the road something hits her car, sending her spinning out of control. Michelle wakes up in an underground cellar, with an injured leg and a phone with no reception. She learns she is being held by Howard (John Goodman), a man who claims that there has been “an attack” and the outside world has become unbearable to live in. The air, he says, is now toxic. And she’s not the only person Howard has taken into his shelter. There’s also Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a man with an injured arm.
With the camera trained on Michelle from the beginning, it’s clear that she is our eyes and ears. And if Michelle’s in for one tense time, so are we. While certainly a victim, Michelle is by no means a weak one. Despite her fear and confusion, she’s willing to fight for her life when given a chance, giving us the perfect character to follow as that question rises time and time again. Is Howard telling the truth or is he simply insane?
And so begins, for the most part, a very impressive thriller. As Michelle comes to learn more about Howard, Emmett and the cellar she finds herself trapped in, the ever-present suspense kicks into overtime. Relatively new screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, with work put in by Whiplash scribe Damien Chazelle, have written a taut, almost pitch-perfect psychological thriller. The threat that looms outside often plays second fiddle to the dangers that lie within personalities, particularly that of Howard, whose touchy persona makes for some incredibly uneasy moments. The claustrophobic quarters are used to perfection, providing just the right backdrop for our characters to have their battle of wits.
Much of 10 Cloverfield Lane could actually work as a stage play; such is the focus on character-driven tension. Winstead is absolutely fantastic here, giving us a protagonist that is both terrified and gutsy all at once, and downright resourceful when the situation calls for it – as it often does. It’s her back and forth with Goodman that provides some of the film’s finest moments, as she tries her best to read between the lines and play her cards right. And Goodman more than matches Winstead’s turn. Howard is a fascinating creation, one that Goodman clearly has a fun time playing with, pulling the audience along like a puppet master. He’s locked in some great performances during his career; put this one up towards the top.
As with many films, the success here comes as a result of fine teamwork. Apart from the script and performances, also worthy of kudos is the editing by newcomer Sefan Grube and the stress-inducing score by composer Bear McCreary, both fantastic. Which brings us to the man at the helm. It’s Dan Trachtenberg’s first time directing a feature film, and you wouldn’t guess it. Trachtenberg, who previously helmed a short film adaptation of the Portal video game franchise, handles the material with such confidence you can already see execs lining up around the block. The director works the genre, or the genre within the genre, beautifully for most of the running time, his clean, precise direction keeping the eye trained on key movements and the heart racing almost all the way through.
In terms of overall structure, the film finds itself slightly lacking as the answers roll around. In order to tiptoe around plot developments, suffice it to say that, in this reviewer’s opinion, the tone and destination we arrive at doesn’t quite sit comfortably with what’s come before. Some eyebrows may be raised, some won’t be. Regardless, at the very least it doesn’t take away from what we’ve been through. Whether it adds up to a decent payoff or not will be up to the individual.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a tightly constructed piece of entertainment. Trachtenberg knows which buttons to push, bringing us a picture that gleefully places us on edge and confidently nudges us to its conclusion, however satisfactory that may be.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10