10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, dir. Dan Trachtenberg)

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Out of nowhere, in March of 2016, J.J. Abrams announced a sequel to Cloverfield had been made in secret. Cloverfield was a found footage movie released in 2008 under similar secretive methods. And I hated the original, mainly because it was yet another found footage movie. It had characters who made stupid decisions that merely happened so that the next plot point was possible. It lacked a meaningful resolution and didn’t even leave things ambiguous enough to think about after the film was over. So, you could say I was cautious about 10 Cloverfield Lane.

10 Cloverfield Lane has incredibly loose ties to the original, and I wouldn’t even call it a sequel, more of a distant relative. It’s not found footage (thank god!). It has characters making intelligent decisions. It has themes and layers of plots and even an ending with some ambiguity. Its story is clearly focused on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman running from her fear about a relationship who ends up, after a car accident,  trapped in a survival bunker. She’s told by the owner of the bunker, Howard (John Goodman) that he rescued her and that outside the bunker there’s been an attack on the entire nation. These claims are backed up by Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a contractor who helped build the bunker, that yes, something bad did go down. Claims are made that the air is toxic and everyone is kept locked up inside. But there’s more going on here below the surface.

The film was the first major feature from Dan Trachtenberg. I’ve been following Trachtenberg since way back in 2007 t0 2012 when he was a part of the Totally Rad Show, a web series that reviewed popular media of all kinds and was a sort of inspiration to me. I was very happy with the work our director delivers. Every actor delivers a believable and nuanced performance. The film is full of clever camerawork and pacing, that never comes across as showing off. Everything here is a completely solid piece of tense thrilling film making.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the big star of the show. One thing I look for in actors, to really see how good their performances are, is to watch them when they are not the one talking in a scene, when their job is to react. Winstead gives a perfect emotional performance and has a quite a few scenes, the majority of the third act for instance, where she only gets to emote and react. It reads as very real and honest. John Goodman was given a tricky role, he has to play someone we need to trust and believe while simultaneously being unhinged. Up until the final moments of the film it is impossible not to have an internal debate about what is really going on with his character.

The plot has three very clear levels: what is going with Winstead’s character emotionally, the interpersonal conflicts between the three characters in the bunker, and the larger global situation outside the bunker. All three are developed wonderfully, given just enough that each deserves. Where the original Cloverfield came across as a glorified amusement park ride, this picture knows character development is key so that when the bigger, spectacular elements start happening we actually give a damn what happens to the people on screen. In an age where we have films that end in citywide killfests, it’s refreshing to have a movie approaching the same world ending subject matter in such an isolated, quiet way.

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