10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language
Score: 4 out of 5
(Warning: the final paragraph of this review may contain spoilers. Just letting you know.)
Talk about surprises. Two months ago, nobody in the world even knew this movie existed. Sure, it was known that Bad Robot, J. J. Abrams' production company, was making a thriller called Valencia (originally The Cellar) starring John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but when the trailer came out this past January and revealed that the film's real title was 10 Cloverfield Lane -- and more importantly, that it would be in theaters on March 11 of this year -- hype exploded overnight. After all, the 2008 monster movie Cloverfield is still fairly well-regarded, and Abrams' reputation as a master of building hype for his projects has only grown in the years since. And so this sudden, out-of-the-blue announcement, done as casually as attaching a trailer to 13 Hours, got everybody talking. The film's box-office success (especially with its small budget) was virtually guaranteed.
It's fortunate, then, that they didn't use that as an excuse to slack off. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a remarkable little thriller, tiny in scale and scope (the total number of credited cast members, from mains to extras, is small enough to count on my fingers) but delivering some very well-targeted, character-driven suspense that had me on the edge of my seat, always wondering who to trust. It takes a hard left turn into something completely different towards the end, but I wasn't really disappointed by the finale so much as I was puzzled by how the film defied my expectations. This movie wasn't what I was predicting, but it was definitely something interesting and enjoyable.
Our protagonist is Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an aspiring fashion designer in Louisiana who's just come off a bad breakup, and has packed her bags and left her boyfriend Ben's house. While on the road, she crashes her car and wakes up in an underground bunker inhabited by Howard (John Goodman), a survivalist who gives her the bad news: while she was knocked out, somebody -- the Russians, terrorists, aliens, who knows -- has invaded the Gulf Coast. They've used toxic weapons of mass destruction against the major cities, so they're trapped for the time being, which is likely to be a very long time. The thing is, given Howard's imposing, threatening demeanor, the fact that he initially had her chained up, and the fact that he had caused her car accident, Michelle has reason to believe that he's lying and that he kidnapped her... but at the same time, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), the other man in the bunker, fully believes Howard's story, claiming that he saw the destruction of the city of Lake Charles and fought to get Howard to let him in, and there are numerous clues indicating that, even if Howard's not being fully truthful, then something bad went down outside. As Howard's behavior grows increasingly erratic, Michelle finds herself forced to make a difficult choice: stay underground with this guy who's clearly a madman, or escape from the bunker and brave whatever may be on the surface?
With only three main characters, and most of the film taking place in a single bunker with little in the way of special effects until the end, this is a film that depended on the actors and the writing to hold it up, and fortunately, they did. Michelle, our heroine, is the only one who isn't morally dubious, serving as the audience surrogate wondering whether or not Howard and Emmett can be trusted. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, fortunately, proves herself more than up to the task. She's smart, brave, tough, and resourceful, but not without emotion, as she fakes her tolerance for Howard while privately expressing fear and regret over both the loss of the people she knew outside (including her ex-boyfriend) and the possibility that Howard might kill her. Winstead's been quietly working on the C-list since she was a teenager, and hopefully this movie will get her more recognition in the future. John Gallagher, Jr. makes a good foil for her as Emmett, a man who's convinced that Howard's telling the truth but has his own concerns about the man's behavior, and eventually comes to support Michelle's scheme to escape. The real standout, though, is John Goodman. It shouldn't be a surprise given the man's long career and proven talent, but he knocks it out of the park here. He walks a fine line as Howard, veering between somebody who genuinely cares for the people in his bunker and is deathly afraid of what may be out on the surface, and somebody who is more than willing to force the people around him to conform to his lifestyle and feels that they owe him their gratitude for saving their lives -- even though, in Michelle's case, she never asked to be in the bunker. He's at once comforting and terrifying, like a big cuddly bear who could easily turn around and maul you at any second, and (pardon the Big Lebowski pun) he really ties the film together.
Director Dan Trachtenberg also makes great use of the tight quarters that most of this film takes place in. Working with a great score by Bear McCreary (best known for doing the music for The Walking Dead, which shows with his work here), he keeps the focus squarely on Michelle, Howard, and Emmett, building great scenes of the three of them all connecting, learning about each other (and wondering how much of what they learn can be believed), scheming around one another, and going at each other's throats. I was constantly on edge with regards to where this film was going to go in the next few minutes, whether Howard was going to lose his temper and let loose -- or worse -- on Michelle and Emmett. Having gotten the job thanks to his work on a popular Portal fan film, Trachtenberg shines as the director here, and puts together a very taut, claustrophobic thriller.
For most of the film, this is what we get: two guys and a girl trapped in a bunker, the girl standing in for the viewer who's unsure of which of the guys we can trust, and how much. Eventually, though, the shit hits the fan and Michelle must try or die, at which point the film suddenly changes gears and develops greater ambitions. (Oh, and skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen this movie yet.) Don't get me wrong, I definitely enjoyed watching the finale, and felt that it wrapped up the film well enough. It just felt strange given the sort of film that came before it. Without spoiling anything, the finale is far more "blockbuster" than the borderline-indie-scale thriller that came before it, culminating in an ending that leaves the door wide open for a sequel. I've heard that the ending was rewritten once this film became what Abrams called a "blood relative" to Cloverfield, a fact that is probably spoiling too much already just by the mention of it (though the title doesn't do any favors on that front). Either way, while it wrapped up the film's lingering questions, it did so by raising new ones in their stead, questions that rattled about in my brain on the drive home. What's next for these characters? Just how much is this film related to Cloverfield, if it is at all? What does it say about modern Hollywood where a low-budget thriller is being spoken of as being part of a shared universe with a giant monster movie from eight years ago? It was a weird ending for a film like this, but it was definitely an interesting one.
The Bottom Line:
If you've read this far, then you've already read too much; such is the nature of Abrams, where you have to preface reviews of films even tangentially associated with him with spoiler warnings. Don't let that scare you, though; this is still a very well-made thriller that constantly kept me guessing, with nearly all elements firing on all cylinders. And even when it got strange, it remained quite watchable. Firmly recommended.