Movie review: 10 Cloverfield Lane
The story of a woman kept locked in an underground bunker by a survivalist is a gripping psychological thriller — unless it’s a gripping sci-fi adventure
10 Cloverfield Lane
Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg
Running time: 105 minutes
By Jay Stone
In 2000, I was surprised (and delighted) by the Bruce Willis film Unbreakable — probably the last M. Night Shyamalan movie to be any good — about a guy who survives a train crash and learns a dark secret about himself. The key to the surprise (and delight) turned on the movie’s genre: it was a superhero movie, but if you knew that, it kind of ruined things. Oops. Retroactive spoiler alert.
That mystery is also evident in 10 Cloverfield Lane, a drama that is either a psychological thriller or sci-fi adventure. You don’t know until the end, and one of the mysteries of the art of cinema is that it could be either. It’s about a woman who is kept prisoner in an underground bunker by a wild-eyed man who tells her he is saving her from a Russian (or possibly Martian) invasion above. He’s the kind of guy who would be an obvious psychopath in real life, but we’ve seen movies about Russian (and Martian) invasions: what if 10 Cloverfield Lane is one of those?
The thing is not to know before you see it, and the movie — directed by newcomer Dan Trachtenberg and written by Josh Campbell and Matthew Steucken (with an assist from Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle, who presumably added the temper tantrums) — plays gleeful tricks with our expectations, pulling us back and forth among belief, suspicion and tension. It kind of falls apart at the end, when all is revealed, but for an hour and a half or so, it’s galvanizing.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (still looking for the super-fame that Smashed promised) plays Michelle, a fashion designer whom we meet packing in a hurry to flee an abusive boyfriend. The wordless pre-credit sequence ends when she has a car accident and awakens to find herself chained to the wall in a cinderblock room, with an IV drip in her arm, and her cell phone on the other, inaccessible side of the room.
Her captor — or savior — is Howard (John Goodman), a grizzled former Navy man and conspiracy theorist who has built a survivalist bunker and stocked it with food and other supplies against just the emergency he says has happened. The air above is contaminated, he reports, but Michelle is safe in this makeshift suburban enclave, a perversion of domesticity with a cozy living room, a lot of old John Hughes movies on DVD, a juke box of 1960s hits, and plenty of board games and jigsaw puzzles.
Unfortunately, they may have one or two pieces missing, which is also the feeling you get from Howard. “You need to eat,” he tells Michelle. “You need to sleep. And you need to start showing me a little bit of appreciation.” Goodman — who can be simultaneously frightening and avuncular — doesn’t get a lot of range to play in Howard, but in the narrow confines of his aggrievement, he is terrifyingly watchable.
There’s a third character as well: Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.), a sort of rural doofus who was Howard’s handyman and who has talked his way into the safety (or “safety”) of his bomb shelter. He confirms that the world above has become toxic, but you’re never sure you can believe him. Is he part of Howard’s delusions? Is he in on them? Is he just too stupid to know any better?
The three settle into a sort of parody of family life, with Howard dominating as the demanding father who insists, for instance, that everyone use coasters to protect his kitchen table because it’s a “family heirloom.” He’s both nurturing and menacing: he talks about a lost daughter, Meagan, who loved France, and who’s “Paris Je T’Aime” T-shirt he gives to Michelle to wear. What sort of world is he re-creating here below the apocalypse?
It’s the sort of movie that calls for a sense of encroaching claustrophobia, in the way that, say, Misery kept us tied to the bed with James Caan, but Trachtenberg goes for an open, freewheeling style that dissipates some of the tension. And the climax undercuts much of what has gone before, turning a creepy thriller into a more conventional action film that’s far less interesting
10 Cloverfield Lane was produced by J. J. Abrams, the reigning king of action movies (Star Wars, Mission Impossible). He also directed the original Cloverfield, an alien invasion film that came disguised in the fake reality of shaky cameras and documentary style. This movie turns that notion inside out, in a way. M. Night Shyamalan would be proud.
THE EX-PRESS, March 18, 2016
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