There’s an old formula for making cost effective independent films. What you do is, limit your actors to no more than a handful and set everything in one location. It seems that lately Hollywood has caught onto this formula, or at least the higher level indie filmmakers are putting it to use as we’ve seen with recent films like Ex Machina, Everly and Room. Yet this formula is merely a cost cutting one as there’s less people to feed and basically no location moves or set changes. Yet in order for this plan to work, you need to have a killer screenplay and great actors. This is exactly what 10 Cloverfield Lane has going for it as well as taut, clever direction by rookie director Dan Trachetenberg working from a script by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stueken and Damien Chazelle of Whiplash fame.
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding 10 Cloverfield Lane both onscreen and off and obviously, the offscreen stuff is on little importance here. I never read reviews and seriously limit information when I see a film so I’m not sure if Chazelle was in on this from the get-go or brought in for a polish (the guy has serious genre chops, he wrote the sadly underseen Grand Piano as well as the sadly successful The Last Exorcism Part II) and I am also unclear how J.J. Abrams and the whole “Cloverfield” thing came about. To be clear: 10 Cloverfield Lane is not a sequel to the breakout hit Cloverfield per se but rather, it’s set in the same Twilight Zone-esque world.
As the film opens we meet Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is in the process of moving out of a home she shares with her significant other. As she gathers the last of her things we cut to her driving away and suddenly, she’s in a nasty car accident. When she wakes up she’s hooked to an IV and shackled to a bed where she is soon attended to by an imposing and intense “rescuer” named Howard (John Goodman). He quickly explains that he saved her life after the accident and brought her to a disaster bunker because something has poisoned the air outside causing massive casualties, possibly apocalyptic ones. She’s not the only one “saved” as soon we meet affable local Emmitt (John Gallagher Jr.) who is also nursing a wound but knows a little more about Howard and the shelter they’re now trapp…errr…living in.
Thus begins the cat and mouse game between the three people in the tightly locked shelter as well as with the audience who are rooted firmly to Michelle’s point of view in that, what the hell is really going on remains very unclear. Is Howard a psychopath who’s lying about a deadly attack in order to trap these two young people? Is the air outside really toxic? Is life inside the shelter, which is growing with conflict and intensity, worse or better than what’s going on up top? Skilled direction by Trachetenberg as well as excellent, nuanced acting by all three leads always keep the audience guessing to great affect.
When the trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane hit it was incredibly refreshing because, no one knew what it was nor where it came from. The original Cloverfield also came out of nowhere (speaking of, when do Drew Goddard who wrote that and the criminally underrated Matthew Reeves who directed that get some of the love Abrams has stolen??) and got audience attention by not overdoing it on PR or commercials. I love this move which J.J. Abrams is fond of calling “the mystery box” and I hope more films try it. We don’t need to know every damned thing about a movie – any movie – before it comes out. Granted, the less you know or hear about 10 Cloverfield Lane before seeing it, the better. But honestly, it feels like movies are an afterthought in this oversaturated PR movie world we live in. Anyway, rant over.
10 Cloverfield Lane is a taut, suspenseful film that keeps a pretty great poker face throughout. We’re never sure what’s really happening or what will happen and to pull that off successfully takes a real directorial and storytelling skill. Add to that truly fantastic performances by Winstead (who I hope gets a Brie Larson-like breakout role soon) and Goodman who really brings home the creepy. Gallagher is also great as a kind of quieter straight-man to the other two in the shelter and performances like his, which are deft and humble, frequently get overlooked. Gallagher is truly the glue that holds the trio together. While the final 15 minutes of 10 Cloverfield Lane kind of cause the film to stumble the thrilling ride before that makes up for it. I’m also curious to see what the deal really is with the Cloverdale title and/or franchise.
– Don R. Lewis (@ThatDonLewis)