Release Date: March 11th, 2016 (US); March 18th, 2016 (UK)
Genre: Drama; Horror; Mystery
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.
There’s a great deal to admire about a film that chooses a path and sticks to it in spite of executive-level switcherooing. 10 Cloverfield Lane only discovered its Cloverfield bloodline midway through development, a potentially hazardous move that would have rendered many other outings spineless, but sweeping conviction shines through here. The path Dan Trachtenberg confidently guides his movie down is laden with rich slabs of character identity. So rich, in fact, that it’s probable you’ll forget about the Cloverfield connection after 15 minutes (I did) and instead enjoy a simple thriller with tantalising — and, crucially, natural — twists and turns, its three pro-cum-antagonists each carrying the weight of intrigue.
We have Howard (John Goodman), the overseer, aka the one who owns the bunker within which the film takes place and who calls the shots accordingly. Then there is the convert, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), already booked into Howard’s hotel by the time we arrive. And finally, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She’s the sceptic. You can tell because her red nail polish wears away with stress. Michelle doesn’t call ahead as much as awaken in Howard’s bunker having felt the brunt of a pummelling car accident, one that catches both her and us off guard, a proper assault on the solar plexus.
Escape hangs over proceedings. The film opens with Michelle, who has the appearance of someone desperately trying to escape something — a relationship, perhaps, and probably life in general (odd titbit: Bradley Cooper voices her pleading boyfriend, relegated to a phone call). Bear McCreary’s ominous score plays as Michelle frantically scrambles around her flat looking for road booze and as she departs, keys shunned on the table, that drone grows in intensity. It aids a tone that suggests trouble; via car radio, we hear of widespread power outages. Shortly thereafter, Trachtenberg unveils imagery that reflects an air of claustrophobia: the rusty chain clamping Michelle to the wall in Howard’s bunker, for instance, or the large iron door reinforcing her isolation.
Winstead plays the terrified, suspicious type so well, her eyes often wide and bulging. She is vulnerable, clearly, and yet full of defiant craft — there’s more than a touch of stellar horror heroine going on here. Goodman, meanwhile, juggles sanity and insanity with incredible credibility. He breathes heavily, panting almost, as if he’s about to explode in a fit of rage or is recuperating from a previous outburst. The less said about his character’s motives the better, though Goodman’s soon-to-be iconic introduction ought to be noted: the camera tentatively navigates around Howard’s hulking figure before unveiling his menacing face from a low angle, further feeding our anxieties.
Who is this man and what does he want? Those questions fuel the film’s allure as it cagily probes away at answers. Early on, Howard bemoans humanity’s lack of preparation, that we talk a good game from afar and then panic when true disaster hits. “Crazy is building your ark after the flood has already come.” The flood on this occasion is a nuclear attack, according to Howard (frequent power surges bolster his end-of-days argument). Turns out this is a man who has proactively prepared for disaster by building a sturdy bunker. Maybe he’s not the freak, but we are. His musings start to make sense.
On the flip side, “Surviving Doomsday” books line the shelves of his shelter and you begin to wonder if the whole scenario is a deluded madman’s ruse. There is a false home-sweet-home aesthetic, plants that are surely fake, and a fictional kitchen window. Trachtenberg and cinematographer Jeff Cutter concoct a terrifically creepy malaise through framing — more than once, Howard appears to creep up on Michelle and Emmett while the pair are mid-conversation. There is nowhere to hide. Feelings of paranoia and mistrust battle with hints of Stockholm syndrome. These themes recall an episode of Lost starring Henry Ian Cusick and Clancy Brown where the former struggles to unravel the latter’s bunker-based theories.
But deep-seated worry does not have a stranglehold on the piece. Penned by a trio of writers — Whiplash director Damien Chazelle apparently revamped much of Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken’s initial plot and character work — the screenplay includes moments of wry comedy that don’t try to detract from the disconcerting situation, but instead lighten the mood just enough to afford the film a more digestible front. Often it’s Gallagher Jr. who is tasked with making quips and he obliges with assured charm, as opposed to the purposefully awkward charm the actor evoked in The Newsroom. Even McCreary’s brooding score takes a break: “I Think We’re Alone Now” plays over a montage of momentary serenity. It’s splendid song-weaving.
The title “10 Cloverfield Lane” may suggest otherwise but this is a character drama first and foremost, tinged with high-concept thrills that complement splashings of sci-fi and horror. The people on-screen share a complex dynamic, an alluring one built around secrecy and regret and revelation. You think you know where it’s all going and then Howard whips out a Pretty in Pink VHS (he seems like a VHS kinda guy). You get so drawn in by the chess game that any Cloverfield associations become somewhat irrelevant, which, I suppose, is a real credit to both the idea and its execution. For the first time in a long time, I left the screening wanting more. Wanting a sequel. Imagine that!
Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures