Wednesday, March 16, 2016
10 Cloverfield Lane: Don't Go Out There. What, Don't You Trust Me?
10 Cloverfield Lane opens with a brisk, eerie prologue, a near-silent montage that finds Michelle—you guessed it—on the run. She's fleeing New Orleans after fighting with her fiancé—surely those reports on her car radio about rolling blackouts can't be important—and though she receives a conciliatory phone call from him (his voice belongs to Bradley Cooper), she isn't inclined to turn around. Instead, she keeps driving on a deserted two-lane road until WHAM! she's the victim of a sudden car crash. And I do mean sudden. The collision, which director Dan Trachtenberg brilliantly intercuts with the film's silent opening titles, is a heart-stopping moment, the kind that frays your nerves and rattles your bones. It is not the last time this sharp, merciless movie will provide a shock to your system.
But while 10 Cloverfield Lane may be uncompromising, it is not unfair. That is, it does not pummel you with spectacle or assault you with incident. It is instead a sinewy, expertly calibrated chiller, one that builds and breathes rather than stomps and shouts. When Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, excellent) wakes up, she finds herself in a small, windowless cellar, with an IV jabbed into her arm and her leg cuffed to the wall. At this point, the movie feels less like the self-proclaimed "spiritual sequel" to Cloverfield—the J.J. Abrams-produced surprise smash from 2008 that married monster-movie hijinks to found-footage horror—than a remake of Room. Michelle's immediate reaction is to want to escape her apparent prison, an instinct that only intensifies once Howard shows up, a tray of food in his hands and a gun strapped to his hip.
This delicious setup establishes 10 Cloverfield Lane as a fascinating study in information asymmetry, for both characters and audience. Michelle is initially convinced that, whether Howard is lying or just plain nuts, she needs to get the hell away from him. But as the movie progresses, she gradually realizes just how little she (and, by extension, we) actually knows. Howard is clearly an odd duck—his social mannerisms are awkward, particularly when he tries to be friendly—but Michelle is never sure whether he is a predator, a lunatic, or a prophet. She must also grapple with the suspicious presence of Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), the third member of this confined crowd. Emmett is in many ways Howard's opposite: a young, folksy charmer who seems to be as carefree and pleasant as Howard is rigorous and stony. But he nevertheless corroborates Howard's claims, professing to Michelle that he witnessed the attack before scrambling to the bunker just in time.
Is Howard telling the truth? Is he a maniac? Could it be both? The beauty of 10 Cloverfield Lane lies in its patience in answering these questions, and in placing you firmly in Michelle's headspace. Apart from a few throwaway scenes, virtually the entire movie unfolds from her perspective, and that narrow point of view is critical to establishing the film's claustrophobic, panicky tone. The script—doctored by Whiplash's Damien Chazelle from an original (i.e., pre-Cloverfield) story by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken—features its share of startling reveals, but it parcels them out organically, resulting in the rare thriller that surprises but never cheats.
This is all masterfully done, but what's most notable is the restraint. Operating with such a small cast and in a single space, Trachtenberg (making his first feature) resists the temptation to inflate the proceedings with artificial flourishes. He instead relies on unfussy camerawork—blessedly, this quasi-sequel abandons the first film's found-footage format—and lets his actors tell the story. Performances are crucial in a film such as this—if you don't accept the characters' terror (and their terrorizing), the whole enterprise crumbles—and the cast embraces the challenge. Gallagher Jr. does fine, understated work as Emmett, while Goodman brilliantly burrows inward; Howard is scary not because he's sinister but because he's erratic, and Goodman emphasizes the character's paranoia and wild unpredictability. But it is Winstead who carries the movie, imperceptibly articulating Michelle's constant mental cartwheeling. Her mind is always racing, and it is exhilarating to watch her attempt to extricate herself from this very sticky wicket.
But the disappointing familiarity of the movie's finale cannot obscure its impressive verve and agonizing tension. Here is a film that dumps three people in a tinderbox, then lights a match and waits for things to explode. That may sound sadistic, but there is too much craft and intelligence on display here for unpleasantness to fester. As soon as she wakes up in that bunker, Michelle just wants to get out, but I'll actually take Howard's side. With a movie as gripping and well-executed as 10 Cloverfield Lane, I'm all in.