A Review of Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane: A Tense, Economical Thriller

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Film: 10 Cloverfield Lane
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Primary Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.
US Release Date 11 March 2016

Perhaps I should change the name of this blog to “Better Late than Never.”

10 Cloverfield Lane begins as a young woman named Michelle (Winstead) packs up her belongings frantically before getting into her car. While driving, she receives a phone call, which makes it clear that she has just had a fight with (and is apparently leaving) her current lover. As Michelle drives down winding Louisiana roads, there isn’t a single soul to be seen. And so, when she stops for fuel at an eerily unattended gas station, the truck that pulls up behind her immediately signals danger.

Later that evening, Michelle is involved in a car accident that causes her car to roll off the road. When she wakes up, she is in a heavy knee brace and is chained to a wall. Soon, she meets Howard (Goodman), who informs her the he saved her life after the accident. He also tells her that they are in an underground bunker and—thanks to a recent apocalyptic attack—that it will not be safe for them to leave for at least a year.

To Michelle’s surprise, she soon discovers that another man (Gallagher Jr.) also resides in the bunker. The man’s name is Emmett and, for a time, he, Michelle, and Howard form a bizarre family of sorts. All the while, Howard’s unhinged and controlling ways make it all but impossible for Michelle and Emmett to ever fully relax, and the longer they spend with Howard, the harder it becomes for them to ignore their doubts about his claims or to remain under his roof. Once she realizes how dangerous Howard can be, Michelle quickly resolves to get away from him and to see for herself what has become of the world above ground.

Abrams’s bold, unconventional, and somewhat misleading marketing scheme aside, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a solid thriller that most definitely has what it takes to stand on its own two feet. While its title and tenuous connection to Cloverfield undoubtedly helped the film to garner attention (and to make money), 10 Cloverfield Lane would have been just as good (albeit, slightly less intriguing) if it were presented as a standalone film (which is how it was initially written anyway).

Before continuing my review, I should probably make it clear that I have not seen Cloverfield. I do vaguely remember seeing the trailer for it when a 16-year-old version of myself went to see Transformers with her family . . . but that’s it. So, I can’t really comment on precisely how 10 Cloverfield Lane does or doesn’t connect to that film. That said, 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t a typical sequel by any means. In fact, it may be best not to think of it as a “sequel” at all—Abrams himself called it a “sister movie to Cloverfield,” and it challenges conventions concerning what a franchise follow-up can be. As someone with virtually no knowledge of Cloverfield, I had no problem following or enjoying 10 Cloverfield Lane. Fans of Cloverfield may experience Trachtenberg’s film somewhat differently than I did, but it’s certainly not necessary to watch Cloverfield before going to see it.

Regardless of any connection to Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a well-paced and smartly written psychological thriller that makes the most of its limited cast and confined setting. And while it is touched by science-fiction, it is much more about its characters and Michelle’s development than it is any aliens or apocalyptic monsters. The film is also powered by a winning combination of deep, layered tension and strong, complex performances, which both work to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. In fact, 10 Cloverfield Lane may just be one of the best surprises many movie-goers will see this year.

Though its script (which was written, in part, by Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle) is not perfect, it is also the source of much of the film’s success. Not only does the script present interesting and multi-dimensional figures who are allowed to develop into dynamic and memorable characters, but it also bounces between different (even disparate) tones skillfully and successfully. Moreover, though he never allows a sense of tension to fully dissipate, Trachtenberg does vary its presence throughout the film, which unsettles viewers and keeps them guessing. At times, 10 Cloverfield Lane is overflowing with suspense and the obvious threat of danger; at others, that danger is allowed to recede just a bit, which allows different aspects of the characters and their psyches to emerge. 10 Cloverfield Lane also consists of 3 acts—the 2nd of which is by far the longest—and it transitions between each of them seamlessly and in a way that is both entertaining and narratively productive.

On top of that, the film’s script is also intelligent (and economical) enough not to waste time giving explanations for certain events or actions. Above all, 10 Cloverfield Lane is about Michelle and her personal journey. Her struggles, feelings, decisions, and development are what matter, not the precise details of Howard’s past, his intentions, or the attack that might have occurred while Michelle was unconscious. 10 Cloverfield Lane may be touched by genres like science-fiction and horror, but it never loses sight of its characters, and there’s hardly a dull or wasted moment in the film as a result.

As well constructed and as solidly written as 10 Cloverfield Lane is, the primary problem I have with the film does lie (primarily) in its script. While I appreciate the film’s focus on its characters, there are a few moments in which its attempts to signal character development or to encourage viewers to emotionally connect with Michelle and Emmett are a shade too obvious. One scene in particular—in which Michelle and Emmett converse from opposite sides of the wall that divides their beds—should have been cut or shortened significantly. Still, such clunky and slightly distracting moments are infrequent enough not to prevent the film from being both absorbing and delightfully unnerving throughout.

If a film only features 3 characters, then the actors who portray them better do a damn good job, and the performances in 10 Cloverfield Lane do not disappoint. As the smart and determined Michelle, Winstead is excellent. She’s an underrated actress, and it’s great to see her in a leading role in strong and widely distributed piece of cinema. Given that Michelle is the character that viewers of 10 Cloverfield Lane are asked to identify with and to pull for, her ability to present a fully formed person who they can connect with is critical to the film’s success. Still, even if Howard isn’t the hero of the film, Goodman’s work in it is just as important and impressive as Winstead’s. Before 10 Cloverfield Lane (with the possible exception of Barton Fink), I’d never seen Goodman in such a large, terrifying, and demanding role. In the film, he conveys Howard’s particular madness masterfully, and he is especially good in those moments when that madness is somewhat suppressed. No matter what he’s saying or doing, Howard’s every word and breath are a source of unease, and Goodman presents viewers with a complex and frighteningly human villain that they won’t soon forget.

To be fair, Gallagher Jr. (Short Term 12) is not especially memorable, but he does accomplish all that the film asks of him. 10 Cloverfield Lane is Michelle’s story and Howard is the monster that she must overcome. Emmett does serve a purpose—his presence both complicates the narrative and imbues the film with additional pathos—but he is also the least developed member of Trachtenberg’s trio (and that’s just fine.

Another aspect of the film worth mentioning is the way much of it looks. Howard’s bunker is a detailed, fully realized space that combines disparate elements in a wonderful and unsettling way. Though certain rooms in the bunker are filled with cozy furniture, colorful books, and board games, much of it is utilitarian, industrial, and off-putting. Howard may have taken great care to make the common area seem friendly, but—just as he can’t quite disguise the hostility lurking behind his every word—he can’t change the fact that the bunker is not a proper home.

Want just one more reason I like 10 Cloverfield Lane? Its lead is a decently written and non-objectified young woman who adapts, grows, and kicks plenty of ass. What more do you need?

Until Next Time
I’m still working more than 40 hours a week, which is limiting my movie time quite a bit, but—as I indicated in my last post—I do expect my schedule to calm down some in the coming weeks. Until then, I will continue to post as often as I can. I currently (and tentatively) plan to begin a master’s program in cinema studies in the fall, so I should probably watch and write about movies a bit more frequently if possible. . .

As always, thank you so much for reading. If you have any questions or would like to add anything to this review, just leave a comment below or connect with me on twitter. Those who are interested can also donate to this blog here.

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