3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, brief violence and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.11.16
The original Cloverfield was a cinematic stealth bomb that producer J.J. Abrams unleashed on an unsuspecting public in January 2008.
It remains one of the very few truly satisfying “found footage” movies: significantly more rewarding than The Blair Witch Project and dozens of even paler imitators. Abrams also quite craftily kept it under wraps during production, resulting in an entertaining surprise for those who love such things.
Flash-forward to the present day, and Abrams has done it again. 10 Cloverfield Lane also was made under heavily cloaked conditions, its title revealed only a few weeks back, when the initial trailers landed in theaters. Fans obviously got the word; Wednesday evening’s preview screening had a massive turn-away crowd.
This new film offers a similarly tranquil prologue, an unsettling first act that builds to a suspenseful and exciting climax, and then a bonkers, hell-for-leather “epilogue” that takes the narrative into an entirely different direction. It’s fun, nervous-making and suggestively grody (gotta love movies that let our imaginations concoct the worst).
But it has very little to do with Cloverfield, and thus isn’t really a sequel ... although Abrams cheekily dubs it a “blood relative” or “spiritual successor.” This one offers a new director (Dan Trachtenberg) and three new writers (Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle), and they deliver what would have been dubbed a well-crafted “B picture,” back in the day. (The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a good example.)
Trachtenberg, Abrams & Co. also have made impressive use of their quite modest budget; rarely will you see money spent so well. I’m also reminded of 2012’s Cabin in the Woods: an entirely different sort of film — gleefully deranged horror, for openers — albeit with a similarly cunning and uneasily humorous approach.
Best of all, Trachtenberg’s film is not a “found footage” project, and thank God for that: no shaky camera work or incessant, awkward selfies. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter handles this like any other mainstream suspense film.
We meet Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a wannabe fashion designer, during a montage that shows her in crisis: packing hastily, fleeing her city apartment, leaving a ring behind, jumping into her car and roaring away. She ignores a phone call from her frantic husband, Ben (voiced by an unbilled Bradley Cooper).
The hovering atmosphere is just a bit off: Radio reports discuss unusual rolling electrical blackouts; her late-night fill-up at a rural gas station feels unusually, ominously quiet.
Then, catastrophe: an unexpected road accident. When Michelle regains consciousness, she’s on a mattress, chained to the cement wall of a fortified room. On the other hand, she also has been treated medically, an injured leg braced, and an IV drip running into one arm.
On the third hand, she also has been undressed to her underwear.
Faint hints of the Saw series might flicker into your mind at about this point, but rest easy; this isn’t that sort of film. This one’s much better (and definitely not gratuitously gory).
Michelle soon meets her captor, Howard Stambler (John Goodman), who petulantly insists that he’s actually her savior. He explains that he rescued her from the wreck, and brought her to his underground bunker. Turns out that Howard is a survivalist, awash in conspiracy theories ... but very, very organized.
His intensity also is more than a little unnerving — even scary — but Michelle keeps her cool; we see the wheels turning behind Winstead’s eyes. Fair enough, she replies, but now she’d like to go home. Or call for help. Or ... something. Pretty please?
Howard’s regret looks and sounds genuine. She can’t leave. He can’t leave. Something really, really bad happened topside, in the outer world ... nuclear and/or chemical bombs, an invasion by Russians, something. Maybe Martians.
Goodman suggests the latter with a straight face. It’s a laugh line, to be sure, but only for us; Michelle finds the suggestion even more frightening, given what it suggests about Howard’s stability.
It subsequently turns out that their little community includes a third person: Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), roughly Michelle’s age, and an amiable “country boy” who eventually confesses, with regret, that he has lived his entire life within a 40-mile radius of where he was born.
And that’s it: Howard, Michelle and Emmett are stuck with each other, in this fortified shelter, for a long time. Likely years, Howard insists.
(OK, yes; at about this point, it’s impossible not to think of Room, and how it seems like Hollywood scripters once again are reading each other’s mail. But the similarity remains superficial.)
Michelle isn’t one to take things at face value; she gets a few chances to, ah, realize that Howard likely is telling the truth. (Forgive my vagueness, but you’ll thank me later; this film makes the most of its various surprises, big and small.)
Even so, Howard’s “truth” may be concealing a few other secrets. Possibly nasty ones?
Days pass, maybe weeks. The three settle into an uneasy routine of sleeping, eating, board games, jigsaw puzzles, DVD movies and other time-fillers. But the anxious atmosphere never really goes away, which Michelle perceives far more than the sweetly naïve Emmett. Despite everybody’s efforts at best behavior, we recognize that the dynamic is unstable.
The tension builds, until ...
Well, that would be telling.
Winstead is a marvelously plucky and resourceful heroine: a character we respect and admire more than Michelle admires herself. That’s actually key to what makes her interesting; Michelle admits, at one point, that she’s always been one to run away from problems or “hard choices.” Yet she’s clearly smart and perceptive, and we watch her blossom into a better, stronger version of herself.
Winstead will be recognized from her recent starring turn as Nurse Phinney in PBS’ Mercy Street; she also had memorable recent genre roles in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Point being, she’s remarkably versatile, and graced with an inherent subtle complexity — a singularity of purpose — that makes even her trivial actions and comments quite interesting.
Goodman, as often is the case, is a force of nature. His take on Howard is richly disconcerting: cheerfully amiable at one moment, his eyes crinkling in spontaneous delight, and then — like a switch being thrown — ferociously unhinged. Goodman wields his bulk like a weapon, Cutter’s camera framing the actor for maximum physical intensity.
Goodman’s bravura moment comes during a round of charades: a scene laced with so many aggressive double-entendres that we’re pummeled to a point of screaming intensity.
Poor Emmett almost vanishes in the shadow of his two companions. That’s not to fault Gallagher Jr., an inherently sympathetic actor best remembered as journalist Jim Harper during three seasons of HBO’s Newsroom. Emmett is, simply, an uncomplicated and callow young man: clearly out of his depth in these circumstances.
And yet, we can’t help wondering what he’s doing here, alongside Howard ... their collective stories notwithstanding.
Production designer Ramsey Avery has a field day with Howard’s survival bunker: a delightful blend of well-constructed practicality — air purifier, steady water supply, fully appointed kitchen, amazingly well-stocked larder — and jarringly cozy accoutrements, such as cute lamps, an heirloom dining table and oddly placed frilly bits. It feels like a man-cave assembled by a guy who thinks he might one day share it with a woman, but hasn’t the faintest idea how to cater to said potential female companion.
As for the rest, you’ll have to find out for yourself. I’ve already said too much, and Trachtenberg (a noteworthy big-screen debut) — along with skilled editor Stefan Grube — deserve their best shot at keeping you at the edge of your seat.
See this one quickly, before its various surprises get spoiled.