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'10 Cloverfield Lane' Just Goes to Show: It Could Be Worse

Howard (John Goodman) confronting Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

This is a fascinating if not always successful experiment that makes you realize there are far worse films to be locked in an underground bunker with.

10 Cloverfield Lane

Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Cast: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: PG-13
Year: 2016
US DVD release date: 2016-06-14

Film has had a long history of difficulty with the locked-room drama, as when you have the tools of cinema at your disposal, what can you offer the viewer in order to keep them engaged instead of having them view what is essentially a stage play with cameras in it?

Sometimes, as with 1948's Rope, 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and even recent fare like 2010's Buried, the gambit works brilliantly, with the claustrophobia of a single location forcing the drama to happen in an area that can barely contain it. However, there remains a certain caste of movies which, despite their best efforts, perform better on the page than they do in execution, with Richard Linklater's 2001 motel drama Tape and the 2013 Tom Hardy vehicle (literally) Locke proving to be interesting experiments but hardly landmarks of the genre, proving that it's a tricky balancing act, making cinema work effectively in a small space.

10 Cloverfield Lane, in a rather bold move, is the newest entry in this rarefied subgenre, itself a big budget pseudo-sequel to Matt Reeves' 2008 monster movie Cloverfield, somewhat set in the same universe but also kind-of/not really. J.J. Abrams produced both, so perhaps some of his more hardcore fans can speak as to the universe both films seemingly occupy, but such speculation is besides the point. After the handheld found-footage nature of Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane diverts from the formula in a big way.

After a brutal car crash, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up to find her leg chained to a bar in what appears to be a bare-walled basement. Terrified, she soon learns she's under the care of Howard (a sterling John Goodman), a farmer who has been building a shelter for some time, and of which she's now in.

The only problem for Michelle, after a few panicked lash-out attacks at Howard, is that he's informing her that she cannot go anywhere, as there was an attack. A big attack. Perhaps even an alien attack. As such, he cannot permit her to leave. The real question for Michelle then becomes whether or not she believes him, and for at least the first half of 10 Cloverfield Lane, she very much does not.

Consoling her and feeling sympathetic to her needs is the only other person living in the bunker, a scruffy-yet-handsome fella named Emmett, who begged Howard to let him into the shelter once he saw what was going on. Emmett and Michelle slowly form a bond, and soon conspire in multiple ways to try and get Howard's keys and make a break for the outside, Michelle in particular not believing all this nonsense about an alien attack. Some plans work, while others are found out.

Howard sees himself as both nurturer and savior, and at times it seems he genuinely cares about Michelle's well-being, but he frequently, sometimes on a dime, turns into a monster, the de-facto captor who more than likely is banking on Stockholm Syndrome. The tension is constant.

While 10 Cloverfield Lane makes effective use of its small set and minimal ensemble, many of its beats and scares are expected. Make no mistake: they're all well-crafted and delivered with efficiency, but nothing here steps outside the boundaries of the psychological thriller genre. The film's third act dips even more into genre tropes, but the surprise is that said act pulls from a completely different genre. The problem, however, is that the movie's ending does feel worn and clichéd, horrendously predictable even if it proves satisfying on the most basic of metrics. (Note, dear reader, how careful attempts are being made to not spoil anything.)

What ultimately spoils all the goodwill that 10 Cloverfield Lane builds up over its first two acts is the fact that the story leans so hard into delivering a very specific reality that all of the audiences questions are left answered. The film's best moments stem from the audience not knowing whether or not Howard is telling the truth about the real world, whether he's living a paranoid delusion and using his captives as emotional props for his damaged past or whether, holy shit, he's actually telling the truth. The film does a great job of feeding you both theories in a way that you could buy either one (albeit with reservations), but only in the end do we realize that it doesn't actually matter what we thought before.

That's a shame too, as the best scene in the entire film involves the three characters playing a timed guessing game, and Howard, played with a beautiful disconnect by John Goodman, gets his suggestion and stares, humorlessly, at Emmett and Michelle and says "I know what you're doing. I see everything." The two, who have been working on an escape attempt in secret, are scared, and Howard, growing more frustrated with them, gets angrier and angrier, shouting that he knows what they're up to at all times. The tension is palpable, and Michelle, finally, guesses "Santa Claus". She's right. This one scene is so perfect in its buildup and execution that you almost wish the rest of the movie lived up to this same level of high stakes tension.

In the end, it's not that 10 Cloverfield Lane is bad or unfulfilling, but after so many great choices, setpieces, and gradual reveals, in the end we're left with a lot of great moments set to a plot that, despite its best efforts, conforms with genre tropes in a painfully typical way. There's a lot to admire about the debut feature from Dan Trachtenberg, but one can't help but see all the movie could've accomplished if it only stuck to its guns and delivered the paranoid fever-dream of a film it promised.

The special features on the Blu-ray edition are nothing to write home about, although they are all well-crafted and informative for those who want to know more about the film's visual effects, stunt pieces, and especially that incredible set. The best bonus here is the commentary track with both Trachtenberg and Abrams on board, diving into a lot of what drove the film's creation and setting, what was cut (the biggest thing being a bird that would've hit a window that Michelle discovered, which, after a previous "outside world scare", Abrams nixed after noting it's really strange for something to frighten Michelle virtually every time she gets a glimpse of something outside the bunker), and, of course, a lot of the two praising each other for their work.

Will there be more additions to the Cloverfield universe? Hard to say, but as long as they keep mixing up genres and never forgetting the human aspect at the bottom of it all, Trachtenberg might be onto something. As it stands, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a fascinating experiment, which, while not always successful, makes you realize there are far worse films to be locked up in an underground bunker with.


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