From first-time director Dan Trachtenberg and producer J.J. Abrams comes 10 Cloverfield Lane, a curious psychological thriller that has been billed as a spiritual successor to 2008’s Cloverfield, but may or may not have any explicit ties to it outside of the brand name (that’s up to you to find out).
10 Cloverfield Lane takes place in a single location with only three characters. Our main character is Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman who has awoken locked up in a cell after she was involved in a car crash. She does everything she can to escape before her captor — a middle-aged, heavyset man named Howard (John Goodman) — walks in, pistol holstered to his waist.
As Michelle begs to be let go and even attempts to attack Howard, he explains to Michelle that he is actually doing her a service by locking her up in his bunker. He tells her of what has happened in the outside world, citing an attack that he claims could have been caused by the Russians, or maybe even Martians, and that the only safe place left in the world is right there in the underground bunker he built.
Sensibly, Michelle doesn’t believe Howard’s story right away, but she is relieved for the time being when he unlocks the shackles that chained her to the wall. She soon meets Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), another survivor holed up in the bunker. Michelle tells him of her wariness towards Howard’s story, but Emmett disproves her theory, explaining that he actually fought his way into the bunker after witnessing the attacks himself.
Michelle begins to settle in as best she can (remember, she was just told that everyone else in the world is likely dead, and the air outside is unbreathable), and the three attempt to hold out in the bunker for the foreseeable future. It’s not so bad, as the bunker has electricity and running water, while also being well-furnished and stocked with enough food to last a couple of years. Howard has even included a jukebox, a television, movies to watch, and board games to play. It’s a well-crafted set that helps give some more insight into Howard’s character.
Now, I don’t want to give anything away and say whether Howard is a definite villain in the film, or if he is actually telling the truth about the outside world. But I will say that it is very hard to trust his intentions throughout the film. I went back and forth on if I trusted his character, but Howard possesses an almost constant threatening demeanor. I’m just saying that I would be fine with living in his bunker if the end of the world was upon us, I just wouldn’t want to share it with him.
Howard’s backstory is filled in more as the film goes on, and neither Michelle nor the audience can be sure that the attack he talks about is the truth. The success of 10 Cloverfield Lane lies in the performances of the three leads (most noteworthy being Goodman), but also the compelling script from Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle.
Howard is at once controlling and overbearing but also reveals more sympathetic moments, too. Early on, Howard shouts at and even gets right in Michelle’s face, looming over her with his large stature just because she touched Emmett’s hand (this is after he awkwardly told them that there would be “no touching” in the bunker). It’s a tense and scary moment, but not long after, Howard tells Michelle the sob story about his daughter Megan.
Scenes like this appear to reveal a more compassionate side to Howard, in turn creating a complex character and less of a villain in the process. These nicer moments from Howard come few and far between, however, and I was still constantly fearful for the safety of Michelle and Emmett as they became more comfortable living in the bunker.
The performance from John Goodman is the first truly great performance of 2016, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his name pops up a lot in Oscar discussions next year. Goodman finds a perfect balance between being pleasant at times and scary at others, while remaining completely captivating. There’s a lot of little things to note about his performance, like mannerisms that he possesses that help make his character feel so real. A stand-out scene involving the three characters as they play charades cemented my feelings about Goodman’s performance, as he carries the scene and single-handedly makes it one of the most memorable of the film.
I don’t want to forget to mention Winstead and Gallagher, though, as they also give great performances. Winstead’s Michelle is bright, strong, and crafty, creating a realistic heroine who is easy to root for. Her character arc culminates in an intense end sequence that is at once enjoyable but also a little too far-fetched when set against the previous 90% of the film. Gallagher’s Emmett is understandably the least fleshed-out character here, but he still makes for an important third wheel.
My only major grievance with 10 Cloverfield Lane is its ending. It’s unfortunate, too, because as the ending revealed itself, I thought it was a wholly satisfying and fun twist. Sadly, the scene quickly devolves into a climax so ridiculous that it undercuts the realism that the rest of the movie tried so hard to create. The cinematography in this scene also takes a turn for the worse, but I only point that out because cinematographer Jeff Cutter does do some extraordinary work in the first 90 minutes of the film.
Mediocre ending notwithstanding, 10 Cloverfield Lane is still a great film. Dan Trachtenberg builds an intense thriller with intricate characters, but the standout component truly is the phenomenal acting. I really think that, were it equipped with a better ending, this could have been my favorite film of 2016 so far.
4 stars out of 5
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor