In early January, the Internet exploded with chatter over a movie trailer. It wasn’t for Marvel’s upcoming civil war or DC’s mega-bro slamfest between Superman and Batman, but a small indie picture from producing partners J.J. Abrams and Drew Goddard called 10 Cloverfield Lane. Made in secret with a main cast of three, 10 Cloverfield Lane delivers an intense, intimate thriller about trust in the face of uncertainty. Don’t mistake Lane’s quiet approach to its March 11th nationwide debut as a lack of confidence in itself, as that belies its true nature for nothing is as it seems or as you expect in this bloodline sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield. This, I think, is why 10 Cloverfield Lane is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Michelle, a woman driving for parts unknown when she is involved in a terrible car accident and knocked unconscious. Awakening some time later, she finds herself in an underground bunker and accompanied by two men: Howard and Emmett. Howard (John Goodman in rare-form) is the owner of the bunker who came across Michelle’s accident and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr) helped him build the bunker. With Michelle hurt, frightened, and locked underground, she has few options and lots of questions. Are these men who they claim? Did they save Michelle out of kindness or something else? If she can’t confirm what they tell her, how does she know she can trust them?
Having a story take place in an underground bunker might cause concern as to whether sustained tension can exist throughout the film, but director Dan Trachtenberg utilizes the limitations of the bunker – limited privacy, shared social spaces, and confined living quarters – to bring out the inherent drama caused by three people forced to live together in an extreme situation. For those concerned that Lane utilizes the same rapidly moving free-hand camerawork from the 2008 Cloverfield, they will be pleased to know that Trachtenberg defers to a slower, purposeful style that never accelerates, even as the tension does. He keeps the camera shots tight, filling the screen nearly always with the actor’s faces. Only using wider shots when trying to fit two or three of them on-screen at once. Doing this keeps the audience’s focus held on each character, which, in turn, amps the audience’s own responses to internal and external stimuli each character reacts to. To his credit, Trachtenberg wastes no moments with his cast, which is essential in a film that is, fundamentally, a drama about interpersonal relationships, the more that the audience sees of each character, the more drawn in we become.
In addition to the camera work, Trachtenberg takes a unique approach in the storytelling by focusing on Michelle’s perspective at nearly every turn. Only one scene takes places where she isn’t either present or the focus. Subconsciously, this creates a connection between Michelle and the audience as we travel only with her. Learning only what she learns. Seeing only what she sees. This also creates an interesting isolating effect within the story. By keeping the audience confined to her perspective of events, she becomes the filter through which we perceive the intent of the other two. Though we see Michelle prior to the accident, we know very little about her, but the audience is expected to trust in Michelle as a reliable focal point. Though subtle, here again, the camera-work has meaning.
Though the film is impressive from a technical standpoint, none of it would have worked without the performances from the main cast. As our focal point, Winstead possesses a quiet intensity that enables her to carry the weight of Michelle with seeming ease. The emotional toll of the character comes out as naturally as one might expect within the situation and Winstead communicates the vast range of emotion through subtle choices. A glance, a concealed tear, or even a shift in posture all convey volumes. The broader, more bombast performance comes from Goodman who oscillates between patient custodian and raging adversary constantly, with only perceived intent guiding the audience to which Goodman wants to convey. Simply through cadence, Goodman masterfully keeps the audience, Michelle, and Emmett guessing at his motives in each moment. Truly, the uncertainty Goodman wields is reminiscent of his performance in the Cohen brother’s Barton Fink, in which he played the Devil-personified. Similarly, the combined efforts of Goodman and Trachtenberg raise a similar question through subtle delivery choices – is Howard a savior or destroyer? Finally, with Gallagher Jr., we have Emmett – a downhome boy who appears to take everything in stride. Is that because he’s a friend of Howard’s? Is he in league with Howard somehow? Or is he just another person seeking refuge? It could be argued that Gallagher Jr.’s role is to provide comedic relief or a sounding board for the other characters, but under examination, it’s a hard call to make. In a movie about trust, each actor makes strong choices whose intent is murky, therefore making them simultaneously suspect and savior.
My only gripe is that the final ten minutes feel tacked on to complete a character arc rather than to serve a purpose to the story. It feels somehow illogical within the framework created in the prior hour and a half that, by not finding a more elegant dénouement, diminishes the intimate performances that came before. Despite this, I left 10 Cloverfield Lane satisfied and impressed. I expected high caliber performances from the cast, but was surprised by the indie-feel Trachtenberg delivered. Given the high-octane explosions and camera work of the 2008 Cloverfield, my expectations were decidedly not met and I couldn’t be more pleased. Do your best to see this movie with as little information as possible and encourage others to do the same. Then, go outside and play. After an hour and a half in a bunker, you’ll want to see the sky.
In theaters nationwide starting Friday, March 11th.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5