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Movie Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane
Short answer: we're probably looking at an anthology

[NOTE: This is a film that relies very heavily on the viewer being unable to get a firm grasp on what is going on. I have attempted to avoid spoilers throughout this review, but if you plan on seeing the film no matter my opinion, I urge you to stop reading now, for one or two minor reveals are bound to slip through.]

J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions has proven time and again that it likes to keep secrets and tease audiences with mystery. And like with any good magician, audiences love being surprised, no matter how many times they've been fooled or how clearly they see through the tricks. That's why it was a stunner when 10 Cloverfield Lane was announced a mere month and a half before its release date. Is it a sequel to Cloverfield? Is it part of a weird sci-fi anthology series? Is the Cloverfield monster in it? Why is John Goodman so awesome? Nobody outside of the production had any idea, but now the movie is out, and some of those questions have finally been answered.

For starters, this movie looks very different from the wildly successful 2008 giant monster found footage film whose name it borrows. It's filmed more conventionally, mostly involves a single location with roughly three or four rooms, and doesn't invoke post-9/11 anxieties with collapsing New York City skyscrapers and a headless Lady Liberty. That said, it feels very similar, in that it tightly focuses on a handful of flawed, realistic characters undergoing a largely unseen, massive threat. It's tense and horrifying in a meticulous way, and there are clear hallmarks of the sci-fi/horror genre throughout.

Michelle
She's holding technology aloft, as if that will save her

Be forewarned, though: if you go into this movie expecting Cloverfield, you will be disappointed. Its tenuous connections to that film may be an ingenious market strategy that will put butts in the seats (and already has), but it is possibly one of this movie's greatest weaknesses, through no fault of its own. This is not a movie geared for fans of giant monster movies or found footage horror flicks, and I'm betting there are more than a few disappointed fans out there who feel cheated. If you go in without those expectations, though, you will see a very good psychological thriller that may or may not involve some kind of massive disaster. 10 Cloverfield Lane is less Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project and more Alfred Hitchcock meets Rod Serling.

The film opens with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has just left her fiancé, having a sudden and violent car crash. When she wakes up, she finds herself on a mattress in a bare room, shackled to a wall, and in pretty rough shape. Her fight or flight instincts kick in and she attempts to get free, at which point a large, imposing man named Howard (John Goodman) walks in and explains to her that there has been "an attack," that he saved her life, and that they are about to spend a year or more in his underground fallout shelter to ride out the contamination on the surface, though his creepy tone is less than reassuring. She quickly discovers there is one other person in the shelter with them, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who apparently witnessed the start of the attack and fought his way into the shelter.

10 Cloverfield Lane
The most suspenseful spaghetti dinner since Michael Corleone went to the bathroom that one time

Nearly the entire movie centers on Michelle's attempts to get a handle on the situation she finds herself in, dealing with the question of whether she should believe her unquestionably unbalanced captor and wait for the surface to be safe again or whether she should be doing everything in her power to mount an escape. The question isn't easily answered--and audiences should expect to be teased in both directions repeatedly--and as Michelle slowly uncovers more secrets about Howard, Emmett, the outside world, and the shelter itself, things only get more unsettling.

A film like this relies on a steady pace, intelligent writing, and stellar acting, and it confidently delivers on all fronts. Though Goodman's is the stand-out performance, Winstead and Gallagher are quite good as well. All three characters feel real and layered, and we get to know them through their actions and subtle nuances of behavior, not through exposition or forced plot twists. It never feels boring to spend time with the three of them, even though they carry the entire film, because they are endlessly fascinating and, at least in the case of Goodman's Howard, delightfully perplexing. It is a testament not only to the actors and the writers, but also to first-time director Dan Trachtenberg, a name you are likely to see a lot more in the future.

Howard
In all seriousness, how can one actor be this awesome?

The movie does take a jarring turn in the third act--helpfully bookmarked by one particularly memorable and shocking moment--and it goes a bit off the rails. (I want to talk so much more about this, but I don't want to ruin it.) It maintains its thematic focus through it all, though, constantly probing these characters about whether they are cowards or fighters, gentle or violent, honest or devious. In the end, this is a movie about running away and what happens to people when they are forced into a situation they cannot escape. Do they embrace regret and despair, or do they fight to make their situation better?

So yeah, it may not be the Cloverfield movie you were looking for, but it's an amazing movie all its own. If the idea of a modern Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone mash-up piques your interest, I highly recommend 10 Cloverfield Lane.

FINAL SCORE:

It bears little resemblance to its namesake, but 10 Cloverfield Lane is a great little pressure cooker thriller with a sci-fi twist, carried in no small part by three amazing performances, intelligent writing, and a confident young director


-e. magill 3/16/2016

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