Sunday, August 13, 2017

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Warning: if you haven’t seen this yet – and my perfect imaginary reader really should have - mild structural spoilers are inevitable (though I’ll not outright spoil a certain important plot point).

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has perhaps chosen a bad night for starting a long drive through the American South northwards. A car crashes into hers, and when she wakes up, she finds herself chained in what looks like some sort of underground prison cell.

Her captor (John Goodman), a man we will later learn is named Howard, seems appropriately unhinged. As far as he tells it, he saved Michelle’s life when he grabbed her out of the wreck of her car and brought her to his private underground fallout shelter, for there’s supposedly been some sort of chemical or biological attack which supposedly killed everyone on the surface. Which doesn’t really explain the chain around Michelle’s ankle if you ask me, but what do I know about etiquette?

After a time, and some grumbling about a lack of proper thankfulness, Howard does let her free. Turns out there’s another man down in the shelter too. Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) did some work for Howard and happened to be at the right place at the right time to be let in when something he isn’t clear about but that looked dangerous to him happened. For a time, Michelle plays house with Howard and Emmett, but the situation and Howard are too off, and there’s too little information for her to ever lose her distrust. The question is, what kind of crazy is Howard? The harmless lonely, type who just happens to be paranoid about catastrophes and is for once right? The kind who kidnaps people and pretends to save them from something terrible? And even if there’s something going on outside – what exactly is it?

Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane is a rather wonderful film. For most of its running time, it is a thriller realized as a chamber play, carried by a sharp script that is very good at suggesting terrible as well as perfectly harmless explanations for a lot of things going on, and by performances as good as you’ll find them in a genre movie. Winstead (whom I’ve never seen give a bad or even a mediocre performance) not just makes Michelle’s confusion, anger, and panic palpable but also perfectly realizes the moments when Michelle stops being the person things are done to and finds the strength and determination to act until a decision she makes in the last scene that should be way too over the top heroic to be believable feels like the natural consequence of her growth. She and Goodman’s (right now in a big late career high when it comes to the consistency and quality of his work) sad, frightening, crazy, frightened and mysterious Howard are perfect foils for each other, neither ever attempting to overbear the other actor. Gallagher’s performance isn’t quite as obviously great, but he’s so on point in his interactions with the other two it’s difficult to find any fault in his performance.


For the first hour or more, Trachtenberg escalates the tension in the bunker expertly, with stakes and scale of the proceedings subtly escalating until things come to a head and the film turns into a very different, bigger kind of story (whose precise nature shall remain undisclosed) the director and his lead actress convey just as well. To me, this is exactly how the sort of twisty thriller so many films try to be right now should be directed and written, with a big twist that doesn’t turn everything that came before into nonsense but gives it an additional dimension.

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