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Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writers: Josh Campbell (story), Matthew Stuecken (story)
Stars: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
A young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) makes a choice to leave behind her fiancé and drives out into the night where she is involved in a horrific car accident. She wakes up in a small concrete room, her leg bound by a chain to the wall. Convinced she is in mortal danger, she meets Howard (John Goodman), who delivers a tray of food and the worst possible news: the end of the world has come. A global nuclear attack or something much worse has obliterated the outside world and they are all the remain, at least as far as he can guess. But the two aren’t alone. There is also Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a young man who is also injured and confesses that he didn’t hurt himself trying to get out of the underground bunker but trying to get in. He helped to build the reinforced compound and tells her that he was witness to the attack, something she believes isn’t real. Howard thinks it might the Russians, or the North Koreans, or even Martians. Whatever it is, we are meant guess.
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg, in his feature film debut, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a tense, character-driven thriller that mostly succeeds in making every minute unravel your expectations of what you think is happening. That is entirely because of the outstanding performances by Winstead and Goodman who, like actors in a stage play, are finely-tuned into the roles. Winstead plays it tough but not overly-so, an independent but sensible woman who is clever and resourceful, a role that would seem to lend itself to tropes of the genre, but she doesn’t succumb. Michelle is thrown into a chasm of confusion and disbelief, trying to come to terms with a reality that seems impossible, and Winstead convinces. Goodman is a wonder, a powerful presence that teeters terrifyingly close to an edge we aren’t sure is earned by the situation or from a deranged mind. Controlling and decidedly paranoid, he seems both uncomfortable with his choice of having these two people in his carefully constructed bunker and positively the mastermind behind why they are there. A performance that redefines Goodman as an actor, this is the best work he has ever done.
Almost all of the film takes place in the cramped confines of the narrow bunker, a well-designed set that features a common area, a kitchen and bath and a few sleeping areas. Trachtenberg uses the small setting well, never letting it become too familiar. The claustrophobia adds much to the premise while we are down in the cellar, the tension and suspense almost unbearable. There are several great moments, including a superbly shot dinner sequence with a set of keys that is filled with scathing looks and accusatory glances. It is a darkly menacing moment that paints Howard in a frightful light, but one that might be redeemed. That quivering tone is the film’s greatest achievement. We simply have no idea what is coming next. That’s great filmmaking.
That shifts dramatically in the last third, where the film switches genres and ties itself a little more closely with its predecessor. Without giving away what that is, we see Michelle emerge as a special kind of hero and Winstead deserves a lot of credit for what she does here. That credit extends to Trachtenberg as well, who lifts what could have been a by-the-numbers finale into a challenging set piece free of dialog, where much is left to the audience to interpret. Echoing the start of the film, and even connecting what seems arbitrary at first, the bookends of the story are visual only, with a riveting score by Bear McCreary, a popular television score composer. In today’s film market, this is a daring choice, and one that pays off. Leaving Michelle mute makes her all the more impressive, the incredulous moments she encounters are better served by her highly expressive face rather than one liners and quick quips.
It is the ending of course that is the conversation, and one that is going to divide viewers. The incredibly well-produced and performed two-thirds are of a higher degree, a chilling and stylistic work that easily deserves place among the classics. The ending really isn’t surprising considering the title and the background, but while it does satisfy, feels a little like a betrayal and even a letdown after what we become so invested with for much of the film. The emotionally gripping moments with Howard, Michelle, and Emmett are like a lesson in psychology, with Howard a new cinema classic villain (a term that in every way does and does not fit) that deserves further study. What we know about him and what drives his motivations are never made clear, which is also another right step by the movie makers. The finale is everything the rest of the film is not, an explosive, chaotic action moment that is a departure from the measured insanity of the bunker, but wholly creative on its own. 10 Cloverfield Lane may not be the story you are looking for after watching the original, but it does what it intends very well.