Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane Is A Dark, Unnerving Thrill Ride
Like its marketing campaign, the exposition to open 10 Cloverfield Lane is spare. In this "spiritual successor" to Cloverfield, facts are limited and the audience is left to look for clues. Even the sounds in the opening moments are few and far between. The intense score guides the action as Michelle (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) quickly packs up to flee her apartment for what appear to be personal reasons, leaving behind an engagement ring.
Out on the open road, we get a brief glimpse into a conflict between she and her fiancé (voiced by Bradley Cooper) before events suddenly shift and Michelle awakens chained to a wall in a sparse room with concrete walls. This room would be one of the roughly six different sets that create a sense of enclosure throughout. Jeff Cutter's cinematography and Dan Trachtenberg's direction make this world so small it feels like it is constantly pushing our characters to get out.
Fueling that sense that this space is too small is her self-described savior, Howard (played masterfully by John Goodman). His hulking stature and larger-than-life persona make the audience uncomfortable throughout, as he dominates every aspect of the experience. He tells Michelle that there is danger outside and that he is protecting her from it, but the audience is left to discern how true Howard's narrative is and whether the greater threat to Michelle is inside or outside the space.
The mystery is heightened by the presence of a third character, Emmett (played by John Gallagher, Jr.), who helps to make both Michelle and Howard feel like fully-formed characters. Michelle, by offering her someone to connect with and Howard, by offering a backstory for someone who could easily be dismissed as a conspiracy-theorist and not much more.
The magic of the movie is Goodman's performance. At once constant and erratic, he creates a character that is well-reasoned, but potentially off as well. Walking this fine line throughout gives the audience the sense that anything could be true. There is little indication as to what will happen if everyone stays the course, and it is Goodman that masterfully creates that sense of uncertainty. It is his own self-awareness that makes the danger feel real. He constantly reassures Michelle that he knows how she feels and that he is not crazy. He even says, "crazy is building your ark after the flood has already come." It is in his hands their safety lies and the film does a wonderful job of making those hands feel steady, even if unsure.
The characters do, in fact, attempt to carry on as the family unit Howard seems to intend. Father, brother, sister. From there, the characters and the audience have enough information to form reasonable opinions, but not enough to be sure that any of it will hold true.
The best way to summarize what makes this movie so effective is that it only gives the audience what is needed. The music dominates the opening minutes because the only sounds that are needed are the ones that increase the tension like the over-amplified 'clunk' of a gas pump. The audience's fear for Michelle's safety is ratcheted up by the fact that we only know what she knows. Each act builds the Hitchcockian dread and the audience never really gets to be comfortable with how the events are unfolding. Some may disagree about the strength of the third act, but once again, JJ Abrams has shown the industry how to craft effective and purposeful stories that satisfy audiences without placating them.
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