10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) – Movie Review

★★★★

So as part of the JJ Abrams “Mystery Box”, which makes the mystery in both adverts and reviews act as part of the roll-out marketing strategy for the movie, I’m not sure how much information I can give about 10 Cloverfield Lane without people thinking I’m spoiling the film. This worry has been heightened for many people thanks to that title, 10 Cloverfield Lane, which makes it out to be a sequel to the 2008 film, despite everything from the style to the premise of three people trapped inside a bunker being a complete change in all other regard.

Well, it’s not really a sequel. The connections between the two, barring some obvious post production inclusions from when this film was its own entity called The Cellar, are mostly non-existent. They’re basically changing the title/series of Cloverfield to be an anthology saga, a change which I think is an honest improvement. And speaking of anthology series, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the equivalent of a great Twlight Zone episode extended to feature length, meaning more time to flesh out the middle section and spend time with the characters. This kind of release is a welcome change of place from a big budget studio; a genre film that’s predominately an acting showcase.

Dan Trachtenberg’s most high profile release before this film was a Portal fan film, and after this movie expect him to get more studio work in the future. Like work last year from Room and The Hateful Eight, whose basic premises this film reminded me of, he is able to fill a short room with so much life. From montages set to cheery music (that reminded me of an updated Fallout), to framing conversations across different rooms and behind walls, you never doubt the construction of this bunker, or how people could survive inside of it.

Among those survivors is John Gallagher, Jr as Emmett, the man who built the bunk and whose sarcastic remarks and more relaxed nature acts as a great counterpoint to much of what is going on. I mention him first because of all the main cast, for reasons of his involvement in the plot, he is the one least like to get attention, but more than holds his own. Unfortunately for him he goes up against two more showcase-y roles. Mary Elizabeth Winstead has always been a great genre queen (from great movies like Scott Pilgrim to crappy films like The Thing remake), and here she really gets to show her prowess, from the fear in a glance to the moments of levity to a character arc that shows her learning confidence and to follow her instincts. The crucial thing about her character compared to so many thriller protagonists is that she is smart. She makes the clever and more ingenious choices in any situation she is put in, which through her eyes makes the twist and turns feel more like genuine surprises (even if, having seen a fair thriller or two, you can generally guess where its going).

But the highlight of this film is John Goodman as Howard, the man who now that DiCaprio has his Oscar we should point all our memes towards. His most intense performance since Barton Fink, his authority is commanded through the smallest of gestures, and he has all the mannerisms – the stare, the hand movements, the body posture – of a man who is kinda naturally creepy even if you’re not sure it is supposed to be intentional (we’ve all met that person. Hell, I think I might be that person). John Goodman’s performance in 10 Cloverfield Lane is the kind of performance that, in the more prestige version of this movie, like Room and The Hateful Eight, would get an Oscar nomination. Also if this didn’t come out in March and the Academy didn’t have the memory spans of goldfish.

So this had all the potential to be a thriller classic. Until the ending. Of course I won’t spoil this ending, but even though this climax was telegraphed from near its opening scenes, those ten minutes feel so incongruous to the ninety minutes that preceded it. Before that point 10 Cloverfield Lane would occasionally stand over the precipice of silly, but in these moments it dives right in. On one level, it’s an ambitious change of pace, and it completes major character arcs and ties into why this movie has this title, but it ultimately felt like a jigsaw puzzle that was completed with pieces from a completely different board.

Still, I’ve seen a lot worse thrillers that’s endings lost a lot more good will. 10 Cloverfield Lane is among the biggest surprises of the year so far. And though some of those surprises might annoy those looking for a strict Cloverfield sequel (which, for the record, was not me), those looking for a taught, character driven thriller a la Panic Room will find a lot of to like here.

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