Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

10 Cloverfield Lane is a masterclass in suspense and keeping the audience off-balance. John Goodman gives a potentially award-winning, unnerving performance, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead providing dramatics alongside John Gallagher Jr, in this visual metaphor for domestic abuse.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Director: Dan Trachtenberg (Directorial debut).

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Die Hard 4.0, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), John Goodman (The Big Lebowski, Argo), John Gallagher Jr. (The Heart Machine, Jonah Hex).

10 Cloverfield Lane is a masterclass in suspense and keeping the audience off-balance. John Goodman gives a potentially award-winning, unnerving performance, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead providing dramatics alongside John Gallagher Jr, in this visual metaphor for domestic abuse.

First thing’s first, if you’re planning on seeing the movie, don’t read any reviews, spoilers, or previews. Nothing. Stop reading this and come back after you’ve seen it. This film is best experience with no knowledge of any of the events that occur.

10 Cloverfield Lane is not a sequel, nor prequel to the 2008, found-footage cult hit Cloverfield. It’s closer to a spiritual successor, but even that isn’t an accurate description, producer J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) describes it best as a “blood relative”. The film has no reason for the Cloverfield tag in the title, other than to drum up hype after its announcement earlier this year.

The opening shot shows us Winstead’s character Michelle leaving New Orleans after a break-up with her partner (voiced by Bradley Cooper), presented with no dialogue and an immense concentration on Bear McCreary’s turbulent score. This almost silent opening is followed by a sudden a car crash, leaving Michelle to wake up in a bunker, chained to a pipe.

Michelle’s first intention is to escape, using her own wit and power. Screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle with Winstead make sure that this character avoids being the typical damsel in distress, and her endurance throughout the film is inspiring. She declines being a casualty, or a victim. Introduced soon after is Howard, who has prepared for the worst world-ending scenario, whatever it could be. Russians, nuclear war, aliens; Howard’s bunker is designed to survive it all. He informs Michelle that he’s saved her from some sort of attack above ground, that’s made the outside world inhospitable. John Gallagher Jr’s Emmett is the third and last character to inhabit the bunker. He helped Howard build the bunker, and broke his arm trying to get in. At the beginning, he acts as a sort of peacekeeper between Michelle and Howard, but later we see him and Michelle bonding and siding with one another.

Goodman commands such an enormous presence on the screen, and that’s not a dig at his weight. His character is unnerving, you don’t know what he’s thinking or what he’s planning on doing next. Is he a hero, or psycho? What are his intentions? Goodman utilizes creepy and subtle facial expressions, along with small hand gestures, to create this gut wrenching feeling every time he’s on-screen. His motivations are never clear and Goodman propels this character into a true villain.

Cinematographer Jeff Cutter with director Trachtenberg manage to squeeze the camera around this claustrophobic bunker, creating tight-chested feelings as these characters maneuver through the smallest of spaces. Production designer Ramsey Avery has created a neat, too-cosy environment for these characters to inhabit. Sound editor Robert Stambler and editor Stefan Grube work together in harmony to elevate this horror into a psychologically damaging thriller.

There’s no way to tell if there truly has been an attack above ground, if Howard has kidnapped a couple of people or if he’s just paranoid. All realities are equally terrifying, which make 10 Cloverfield Lane quite unique. There are no ‘silly decisions’ in which the lead character makes questionable choices to advance the plot, and additionally avoids all other ‘horror’ clichés.

Fear is the motivator of the film. It’s why these three characters have ended up together, and one of the tools that abusers use in domestic violence. Goodman’s character personifies all the traits of an abuser, Tasha Robinson’s interpretation of the film is one I fully stand by, Goodman is “more interested in controlling her than comforting her”. Throughout the film we see him demanding and struggling to understand why Michelle is upset, or why she would even question his actions. “Monsters come in many forms” is the tagline to the film, and it’s a little deeper than the Cloverfield tag will have you think.

Every element of the film brings further tension. Whether it’s Michelle overcoming a struggle, the uncertainty of conversations, or the small, enclosed spaces like ventilation shafts, filmed to create an environment of breathtaking claustrophobia.

But ultimately this thrill and suspense is dispersed by the film’s last 15 minutes, where mixing two different genres fails to create a working palate. It’s a shame, Winstead ushers an incredibly performance throughout the film and which starts to become undone by its finale. A disappointing ending which will be sure to cause anger and frustration among some, others will praise it for living up to its name.

Ten or so minutes could have been shaved off from the running time to make this film outstanding, and perhaps if it had stuck to its first title ‘The Cellar’, we might not have had as many obtuse reactions to the ending.


Feature image credit: Bad Robot Productions, Paramount Pictures.


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