10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG

for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief strong language
Released: March 11, 2016
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.

When John Goodman’s getting Oscar buzz – in March, no less – for a creepy pseudo-horror scare fest, you know there must be something more to the movie than initially meets the eye.

Made in secret, 10 Cloverfield Lane fits squarely into the “mystery box” approach – both in genre and marketing – that has long been producer J.J. Abrams’ brand. It’s billed as a “blood relative” to the original Cloverfield but not a direct sequel to that “found footage” monster movie (which was, for my tastes, All Concept with No Follow-Through). Given this script’s origins (it was initially titled The Cellar, and written without Cloverfield in mind), the film bears its autonomy out…mostly.

Abrams’ “loosely connected” pitch, while accurate, is also intentionally coy. The eventual tie-in to this burgeoning franchise’s mythology, however, makes for a very fun finale, and elevates what is an otherwise good-but-conventional exercise in small-scale horror into something far more fascinating, and teeming with possibilities. Yes, Abrams also throws in his Easter Eggs (the patented “Kelvin” reference happens early on, one of his A-list besties plays the voice on the phone, plus others I likely missed), and yes, John Goodman is fantastic.

Little about 10 Cloverfield Lane is fresh or original, despite one of its scriptwriters being Damien Chazelle, the writer/director behind the very inspired Whiplash. It takes a basic premise (young woman kidnapped and held captive by a crazy man) and fleshes it out with traditional beats and tropes. It wouldn’t be fair to label 10 Cloverfield Lane as predictable, per se, but it’s all very familiar, from its broad narrative arc to specific genre staples to standard stock characters.

Yet given how much this adheres to formula, the atmospheric and claustrophobic power of 10 Cloverfield Lane is also a case study in why cinema is a director’s (not writer’s) medium, and how great actors can enrich run-of-the-mill material. This is an impressive feature debut for Dan Trachtenberg
, who only has a couple of shorts under his belt (sorry, couldn’t resist the play-on-words). It is, as I said earlier, an exercise in style – a thriller that dabbles in horror – and Trachtenberg shows solid command.

Confined to an underground bunker, no supernatural elements, and only a three-person cast, Trachtenberg creates, holds, and ratchets tension through old-fashioned techniques mastered by Hitchcock, and honed by greats who’ve followed. Yes, he relies a bit too heavily on the stylistic flourishes (loud and sudden sound effects, jump scares, and the like), but it’s a forgivable (even welcome) overcompensation for the script’s grinding plot mechanics, and shows a lot of promise.

Trachtenberg’s two biggest assets are found in his three-person cast. Yes, there’s the aforementioned Goodman, whose Doomsday Conspiracy Nut expresses himself in eerie but convincing swings of mood and mind, shifts so sincere you begin to wonder if his paranoia is actually valid, and you understand why his captives – Michelle and Emmett – grow to believe him (though never fully trust him). The Oscar buzz may be a bit of a stretch, but this performance is still another bravura example of how good of an actor – and taken for granted – John Goodman is.

For Mary Elizabeth Winstead, this is nothing short of a star-making turn. A regular of indie and genre fare (who turned critics’ heads in the gritty, heartbreaking addiction drama Smashed; seriously, seek it out, it co-stars Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul), this is a real showcase for Winstead. She takes the Girl In Peril archetype (with added layers of guts and ingenuity) and makes her a compelling person beyond her situational plight, to one you’re genuinely rooting and caring for. She’s clearly capable of more challenging roles. John Gallagher Jr. (HBO’s The Newsroom, and the even better Short Term 12; another must-see) suffices in the comic-relief role, but Winstead and Goodman are in another league.

Ultimately, the reason Abrams produces low budget movies like this is to do what studios don’t anymore: develop promising talent. Just as Universal gave a young Steven Spielberg the TV movie Duel (which led to hiring him for Jaws), Abrams and his production company Bad Robot are using the Cloverfield banner (something that Abrams likens, in spirit, to The Twilight Zone) to pluck gifted filmmakers out of obscurity – whether it be first-time directors like Trachtenberg, or actors like Winstead who can’t seem to catch a breakout – and give them a chance to make names for themselves, with the help and credibility of someone like Goodman. The end result may not be a classic but, as with Spielberg, it may lead to one.

Oh – and that final act. What a payoff, with a perfect mix of thrills, surprises, closure, and mystery, all in the exact right doses and delivered in that order. It left me with a silly, satisfied grin on my face, shaking my head while thinking, “Wow. Um…okay.”


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