There’s some kind of cynic’s humor to be milled from the fact that, of the films so far released by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions studio, the ones authored by someone other than Abrams seem to be the ones that end up doing better by their concepts. 2008’s Cloverfield, one of the first Bad Robot movies to really make an impact in any sense, wasn’t technically directed by Abrams, but Matt Reeves was making his feature debut and the contours of the thing - from the splendidly vague six-months-in-advance teaser announcement to the myriad plot hints and maybe-non-hints dropped in various corners of the Internet to the actual film itself, which was an intermittently effective mishmash of found-footage tedium and intriguingly disproportionate creature design - had the unshakeable feel of an Abrams pet project.
Movie Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane
By Ben Gruchow
March 15, 2016
Bearing all of this in mind, the amusement is that 10 Cloverfield Lane, which started life as an unrelated project called The Cellar and got retitled and unveiled as an apparatus of the preexisting - universe? mythos? ethic? royalties sphere? - only eight or nine weeks ago, is not only far better than the 2008 film, but perhaps the single most complete and sure-footed thing to come out of Bad Robot Productions. More surprising is what the film is divorced from context, which is an aggressively taut engagement of how the feeling of doubt and second-guessing one’s inclinations can be simultaneously the best and worst emotion to experience for a given situation.
The opening passages establish unspoken conflict: Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) takes part in a harried phone conversation that we are not privy to the details of; following this, she packs and leaves town. On the road, we listen along with her to the news; we are told about multiple blackouts in major cities on the Eastern Seaboard. There is a car accident, and Michelle is knocked unconscious. When she wakes up, she’s chained to a mattress in a nearly-bare, windowless room. Then the door opens, and…but to go any further (and I stress that we are perhaps four or five minutes into a 103-minute feature, and just barely past the title cards) would be to spoil important developments. Suffice it to say John Goodman is involved as a character named Howard, as is John Gallagher Jr. as a character named Emmet.
There are further developments - lots of them, enough to where I could probably write a short dissertation on the first half-hour and it still wouldn’t really qualify as a spoiler - and if there’s a better counterpunch to the omnipresence of unleashing trailer after teaser after announcement teaser, with social-media tie-ins and Super Bowl trailers, it hasn’t yet revealed itself. Even when you’re watching the setup of a really skillfully assembled thriller, you lose what I believe is a hefty chunk of the suspense when you’re thinking of the moment from the second trailer, when you saw a shot or line of dialogue that was obviously from the climactic sequence (or otherwise high-stakes moment) - and no matter how involving those early moments might be, you’ve got an eye kept toward the moment when you know there’ll be a game-changer. Some people call that anticipation; with very few exceptions, I call it undercutting the story for the sake of grabbing a Moment.
10 Cloverfield Lane has many theoretical Moments that have been kept secret by the method of its marketing; unlike many of its contemporaries, these moments feel fully earned by the material. The screenplay keeps its focus on the small group of characters we spend the majority of our time with, letting the implications of each action and development build naturally in the background. The small cast (there’s not really anyone in the film that we haven’t already seen in the snippets of footage from the trailer) means that the movie has something of a built-in handicap in its favor; there’s enough time to probe nuances and ambiguities of character, and not a member of this small cast steps wrong in their interpretation. As the movie develops its story and gets progressively more outlandish, we always have the sense that we are watching people react to bizarre and horrific events, rather than actors reading lines.
This rings especially true with Goodman’s Howard. It’s true that he exudes menace from the moment he first appears in frame, and sometimes well beforehand. There’s something more complicated at work, though; we’re given cause to believe that for the shiftiness and precarious logic that he gives for his actions, and for all that Howard seems to be shaping up to be the movie’s antagonist, he does seem to genuinely be who he says he is and acting in the interests he claims to be. The movie gives him a few moments of solemn backstory that, even as we’re admitting to ourselves its flimsiness as far as rationale, rings unmistakably true on an emotional level. That’s a difficult subtlety to achieve, but Goodman is the right fit for the material, and he makes it work.
He’s by some margin the film’s most complex character; Winstead and Gallagher, Jr. acquit themselves well, and the interactions between them set off the right kind of chemistry and sense of shared desperation, but it’s hard not to notice that their individual storylines and motivations are put on hold to work through the mechanics of the main plot, and these more personal aspects only reassert themselves toward the movie’s end.
This skilled and thoughtful character work would have most likely propped up a badly-produced film around it, but that’s not an issue here. I must reveal that much of the film takes place in an underground fallout bunker in order to go any further; Dan Trachtenberg, making his feature debut, utilizes Ramsey Avery’s production design to good effect, creating a space that feels by turns improvised and careful, cozy and claustrophobic, condensed and labyrinthine. There is the sense of a real ecosystem at work, the perception that this bunker could plausibly exist under the circumstances the movie sets for it. Jeff Cutter and Stefan Grube are relative newcomers to the cinematography and editing fields, respectively (Cutter’s highest-profile project previously was 2010’s Nightmare on Elm Street reboot, and Grube’s first big project appears to be this one); they do fine work here, especially in working with and exploiting the claustrophobic elements of the setting; several scenes involving an air duct big enough for only one of the three cast members succeed as suspense because we’ve been oriented to the space with enough clarity.
And Dan Trachtenberg, in his feature directorial debut, keeps track of each moving piece of the plot with a dexterity that makes me look forward to what he helms next; by the time the final act rolls around, the story has built up a head of steam, and the final, major revelations work as intended partially because we’ve become so involved in the character-based minutiae of what came before it. Try as I can, I can’t think of anything that the movie does wrong, and I’m not lacking for examples of what it does right. This is a tense, frightening film with a surprising surfeit of depth and empathy. I hesitate to describe any film as an airtight construction; it implies perfection, and it’s indiscriminately applied. It’s a phrase that comes very close to what we have here.