Mystery box – shmystery shmox. Producer J.J. Abrams and his production house Bad Robot are interested in the integrity of the viewing experience. They’re nostalgic about a world where there’s no currency in spoiling the living shit out of everything with pithy 140 character bits of snark. Thankfully, their latest claustrophobic, paranoiac thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane has ducked and weaved away from the spotlight long enough to keep some secrets for you to enjoy.
Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is on the run. Hastily packing up the essentials, leaving behind house keys and an engagement ring and hitting the road; her life is just about to change, but not as you’d expect. BANG. Michelle’s car is sent careening off the road and tumbling down an embankment. When she wakes, it’s in Howard’s (John Goodman) ‘doomsday’ bunker, with Howard (obviously) and Emmett (John Gallagher) telling tales of an attack of a monumental scale. Theirs is the only refuge from the attack and poisonous air outside.
Director Dan Trachtenberg makes some inspired choices from the opening frames of 10 Cloverfield Lane. Winstead’s Michelle is required to silently convey the events that lead to leaving her life in silence, accompanied by a contemplative sorrowful score. The sound arrives when her (now) former finance Ben makes a call imploring her to return. Without saying a word, just reacting with a regretful agony (a great moment in a tremendous all round performance from Winstead) she’s smashed off course, and as the car goes from spin to tumble dry the credits are interspersed through the chaos. It’s precise and it sets the tone for a heart pounding, tense experience; living in the creation of a crazy (but very possibly right) conspiracy theorist. The bunker setting makes for some great escalating (or shrinking depending how you look at it) confined spaces for the characters to explore and escape from throughout and Trachtenberg relishes making us squirm.
For those of us in the audience with even the vaguest recollection of the found footage monster mash Cloverfield, there’s a surer idea here that despite the suspicious circumstances of the situation, New York has been decimated. In the back of your mind you’re always pondering – what the hell would it actually be like if an extraterrestrial force extinguished the city that never sleeps. One imagines that writing team Josh Campbell (Screenplay/Story), Matthew Stuecken (Story/screenplay) and Damian Chazelle (screenplay and writer/director of Whiplash) all had those same musings. That said it’s a film that’s also totally built for someone totally new to the series. It’s really a question of “better the devil you know,” which unfortunately for Michelle (Winstead), because she does not see what Howard claims, and Emmett confirms, it’s irreconcilable. The scripting wrestles with that atmosphere of panic, and in the quiet moments, discontent with the ‘truth’.
John Goodman is perfect as Howard. There’s not too many actors that have a loveable and trustworthy quality that make you want to hug them that can turn on a dime to become imposing and terrifying. Goodman’s line delivery is a thing of beauty. The Coen Brothers have used it to wonderful effect, seeing him sincerely deliver ridiculous dialogue without batting an eyelid (“You want a toe? I can get you a toe.”) Campbell, Stuecken and Chapelle script almost every word from Howard’s mouth with potential for double meaning and Goodman knows precisely how to play that for humour or paralyse with fear.
John Gallagher Jr completely disguises his smug good looks and sullen downtrodden longing that we’re used to seeing from across the Newsroom in Alison Pill’s direction to play the quiet and sweet Emmett. Emmett’s by no means an intellectual but he knows Howard and has helped him with the construction of the bunker, so for those of us who haven’t seen the original film, he’s the voice of reason reassuring that they’ve not just been captured for Howard’s leisure. Gallagher Jr was, at least for this critic, completely unrecognisable as Emmett. He played the small town, innocent kid to tremendous effect, connecting with Michelle and shielding the effects of Howard.
Winstead is excellent throughout, giving ingenuity and vigilant perceptiveness to Michelle in this escalating situation. She’s never helpless, she’s always calculating moves and questioning Howard’s theories. It’s a performance that feels designed by a team of filmmakers frustrated by cheering on those helpless (underwritten) damsels.
10 Cloverfield Lane is fun vacation into paranoia fallout; now you’ll have to see it to find out why.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg
Written by: Josh Campbell (Screenplay/Story), Matthew Stuecken (Story/screenplay), Damian Chazelle
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.