Last week I wrote about Richard Linklater’s film Everybody Wants Some, his “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. 10 Cloverfield Lane could very easily be described similarly alongside its 2007 predecessor, the found footage monster movie Cloverfield. But producer J.J. Abrams has instead taken to calling the film a “blood relative” of the original, which he also produced. Think of the two Cloverfields as feature length, big budget anthology entries in a show like The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits. Their connective tissue is a sci-fi milieu, and a rich atmosphere that envelops you in dread.
The film’s official synopsis is, “Monsters come in many forms.” That is a supremely superb and succinct sketch – an excellent example of the Shakespearean proverb, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” The set up to the film, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, is equally simple. A young woman named Michelle survives a car crash and wakes up in her rescuer’s underground fallout shelter. The man, named Howard, tells Michelle that some invading force has poisoned the air, and that it’s not safe to go above ground for a year or two. Michelle and Howard aren’t alone, though. An acquaintance of Howard, a young man named Emmett, saw that the older man was acting strange, and convinced Howard to let him into the shelter before sealing it.
The next hour and a half plays out as an incredibly tense chamber drama. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a masterclass in paranoia filmmaking. Even though Emmett believes everything Howard says about the danger above ground – the older man claims he saw atomic-like blasts – Emmett didn’t actually witness anything himself. Complicating matters, Howard proves to be unstable at best, kind and fatherly but capable of exploding into bouts of rage when contradicted. So, Michelle isn’t sure who to trust or what to believe. In addition to Howard’s erratic behavior, Michelle can’t be totally sure he didn’t run her off the road in the first place. She also awoke in the concrete bunker with her leg chained to the wall. That early scene is evocative of a movie like Saw, and it succeeds in producing the uneasy feeling that at any moment the movie could shift into torture porn.
Film critic Tasha Robinson wrote an excellent and insightful piece about 10 Cloverfield Lane where she takes on the problems many people have with the twist ending (more on that later). Robinson connects the climax to what she says is the overall theme of the picture: domestic abuse. Her analysis relies heavily on spoilers of the film, so don’t read it until after seeing the movie, but it’s well worth your time. Of particular interest is her breakdown of Howard’s character, and how he exhibits classic signs of a domestic abuser. Howard shows a sadistic pleasure in terrorizing Michelle while at the same time being hurt that she doesn’t show enough gratitude for what he’s done for her.
That’s just one of the layers present in 10 Cloverfield Lane, though. I mentioned The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits earlier because this movie works as a throwback to the Cold War sensibilities of the 1950s and 60s. The most direct correlation to the The Twilight Zone is an episode of that show titled The Shelter, in which a group of friends struggle to survive in the wake of an eminent nuclear attack. The friends have a fallout shelter, but not enough supplies to sustain all of them. 10 Cloverfield Lane addresses this same issue through probing conversations between the three new roommates, like what would Howard do if someone topside came knocking at his shelter door looking for help? Howard responds, “Kindness and hospitality are antiquated concepts now.” In the world of the film, no one is to be trusted, and looking out for yourself is the only virtue worth keeping.
That raises an interesting point. Why, then, did Howard save Michelle in the first place? The movie addresses that by adding in even more paranoia. Howard tells Michelle about his daughter, Megan, who died mysteriously. Michelle begins to wonder just what happened to Megan. Howard tells Michelle that his daughter enjoyed cooking, and cryptically adds, “Don’t worry, you’ll learn to love cooking, too.” This specific moment ties perfectly into the theme of domestic abuse, but also plays into the paranoia of what happened to Megan, and what’s in store for Michelle.
Because this is an intimate drama with only three characters bottled up in a few rooms, the performances are key to the movie’s overall success or failure. All three actors involved deliver exceptionally well in this regard. John Goodman as Howard is equal parts terrifying, unhinged, and mesmerizing. This is a standout performance in a long career of exceptional work. Goodman goes to a dark place that few actors have the skill to accomplish effectively. Fans* of his off-kilter performance as Walter in The Big Lebowski will notice similarities between the two characters. Howard is like that bowling war veteran in temperament, but with all the comedic attributes stripped away. Here, Goodman is pure menace.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead is both fierce and brave yet vulnerable as Michelle, the emotional core and protagonist of the film. Winstead is an action movie badass (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the 2011 version of The Thing), handling those aspects of 10 Cloverfield Lane – mostly her attempts at escape – by owning the screen with her physicality. She excels at the quieter moments, too, giving Michelle the subtle shadings of a troubled past, which makes her characterization all the more vibrant. There is a scene where Michelle talks to Emmett about how she usually runs from trouble instead of confronting it, and Winstead brings a sadness to the speech that is heartbreaking.
John Gallagher, Jr.’s work as Emmett is a good mix of “aw shucks” country boy and toughmindedness when things get serious. Gallagher, Jr. has his own shining moment when he describes his fear of failure after getting a full scholarship to college. He tells of intentionally wrecking that opportunity so he wouldn’t have to face the prospect of not living up to expectations. There’s an honesty to the moment that really allows the audience to connect with Emmett.
The one shortcoming of the whole picture comes in the last twenty minutes, when things take a turn for the fantastic. The science fiction elements that come into play threaten to derail the entire experience. Tasha Robinson defends the ending as a natural progression of the underlying theme of domestic abuse. The same effect could have been achieved, however, without a climax so unbelievable it undoes some of the magic spell cast by the first three-quarters of the movie. The real strength of 10 Cloverfield Lane is the atmosphere of unease and dread it creates, and much of that is a result of the actors’ meticulous performances paired with the words written for them. Not an outlandish battle with CGI monsters.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- 10 Cloverfield Lane is an expert-level mix of creepy, tense, and anxiety inducing. There are a lot of layers to peel back, and at the same time, it's a hell of a good time at the movies.
- I won't be a bit surprised to find this movie on my top 10 at the end of the year. Although very different films, 10 Cloverfield Lane feels like this year's Ex Machina for me. It's a movie that I think will only grow in estimation the more I contemplate it.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The filmmakers brought in Damien Chazelle to do a rewrite of 10 Cloverfield Lane before they started shooting. You might remember him as the writer/director of 2014's Whiplash. Besides being responsible for the last twenty minutes, where I feel the movie goes a little astray, Chazelle infused the script with that domestic abuse angle that makes the movie so interesting. I can't wait to see what he does next.
*Clearly I'm one of those fans. My Halloween costume from 2008, wherein I'm dressed as Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski: