Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Screenplay: Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, Damien Chazelle
Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
Runtime: 104 Minutes
The thorny challenge that Dan Trachtenberg’s debut feature film, 10 Cloverfield Lane, is facing comes from nothing to do with the nature or conception of the film itself. Rather, the biggest stumbling block on its way to success in the public eye is going to come down to the relation of its title to another Bad Robot title of the same name: Cloverfield. A micro-budget genre exercise that used the platform of its disaster story roots to tell an intimate, grounded version of events in contrast to the world ending chaos surrounding the small cast of characters. This basis appears to be the only guideline that has followed into this dubbed spiritual successor, and possibly the beginning of a rogue anthology series not tested by mainstream Hollywood since the failure of Halloween III: Season of the Witch back in 1982.
So if the bad news is that the film bares little relation to its spiritual cousin – not even unfolding in the same universe as the 2008 monster movie – the good news is that film as it stands is pretty satisfying; a confined, wonderfully staged and nasty little thriller that stretches the essence of its premise to breaking point and beyond.
If there’s a probable link thematically between the two films, then it’s how the film addresses the effecting cataclysm that begins the plot. Cloverfield was very much a symbolic contemporary reaction to the immediate horrors of 9/11 – not unlike Japan’s reaction to Hiroshima/Nagasaki as seen in Godzilla – and the manner in which John Goodman’s survivalist expert Howard Stambler prepares for impending attack with absurd strategy and preparation very much echoes the same doomsday planners that sprouted in the wake of the 2001 tragedy.
The screenplay is a shared effort – with notable additions from Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle – that rounds its characters through efficient means of conflict and manages to stress the comfort zones of these 3 unknown, close quarters’ characters. Trachtenberg’s direction is pretty excellent and shows a great amount of self-discipline in both the visual storytelling of planted props and calculated decisions, shot and edited to decent effect which applies heart stomping pressure to the already present friction that has been brewing within the bunkers confined walls – as does Bear McCreary’s fantastic orchestral score.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead has formed much of her career out of playing strong-willed leading female figures, and her performance as the fragile yet remarkably resourceful Michelle is a heroic conquest that probably holds up as some of her best work to date. John Gallagher, Jr. as fellow cellmate Emmett is also wonderfully pitched as useful support, even though he doesn’t feel quite as focused upon as Winstead.
The loudest performance in the film though comes from the brilliantly cast John Goodman as the apparent antagonist Howard; an ex-navy engineer with a penchant for traditional family values and safety who might be the greatest monster in the whole film. The performance is extraordinarily against type for the reliably savvy star, an enemy who is constantly on the cusp of explosive rage whenever he isn’t offering food with unnervingly polite etiquette. Goodman really uses the full weight of his physical presence as a form of intimidation and exudes genuine threat and disquiet at every moment.
Much like the unspecified motives of its villain, the film keeps twisting its narrative in new directions to throw you further off balance as to its true intentions, and it’s a thrill to be a part of the elaborate trap that has been laid for both its characters and the audience experiencing it with them. There are certain plot elements and red herring moments that are left vaguely unexplained, which does leave something of a messy trail by the film's end despite how effective it is while watching it. But everything is set up well enough that by the time the final act comes around and some revelatory turns are made, you may well be sold enough on its premise and characters to overlook much of the unadulterated battiness of the final movement.
10 Cloverfield Lane is, in general, a real surprise; a tough, lean and skilfully made genre exercise that carries the stigma of a title that it need not really carry, and may certainly stand to be a highlight come the year’s end.