A movie like this practically markets itself. Put Cloverfield in the title and I’ll come running, kind of like the critters in the so-named 2008 monster movie. There’d probably be a little less gnashing of teeth but, you know, no promises. I caught that film during its big screen ascendancy, and let me tell you how much I enjoyed its shaky-cam, point and shoot revelry: a lot. 10 Cloverfield Lane, you say? From the same production company? Where do I sign?
We join our main character Michelle as she leaves home in a hurry, abandoning her engagement ring as she goes. Her boyfriend calls and implores her to turn back, but she drives on wordlessly. We briefly hear exposition on the radio about a widespread blackout, but this is interrupted when Michelle is forced off the road, the crash abruptly intercut with the opening titles. This entire sequence is drowned in an urgent Bear McCreary score, one that will pulse throughout the movie and be one of its more memorable features. A bruised Michelle awakes in an underground bunker, meets her captor, and speaks for the first time...
That sounds like an elaborate set up, right? Blink and you’ll miss it. For all the film’s faults, dragging is not one of them – the pacing is formidable. We are quickly introduced to this chamber piece’s two other players, and we have our cast. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is convincingly terrified as Michelle owing to her alma mater of middling slashers. Her hulking abductor Howard is the perfectly cast John Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr. appears as Emmet.
The D.P. should be credited for getting as much shot variety as he does in the claustrophobic set, but the film’s framing for the most part defaults to extreme close up. Shot reverse shot abounds, which works well in this setting. Winstead acts with her eyes, often silent for much of a scene, but always scheming. Goodman is incredibly expressive, alternating between a wry, cockeyed smile and a wrathful bellow. Gallagher, meanwhile, is dealt the comic relief role which is handled clumsily.
Take for instance the dinner scene. The unlikely family are convinced by Howard, sitting at the head of the table like a patriarch, that leaving the bunker is out of the question, as the air above ground has been contaminated by a chemical attack. Michelle is the audience’s avatar, isolated in the dead centre of a wide shot. She sits uncomfortably between being bemused and unnerved by Howard’s paranoia. “Home sweet home” can be seen above the common room jukebox, no doubt placed there by Howard without a trace of irony. Subtle humour like this is forgotten as Emmet quips lamely in between mouthfuls of canned food, stockpiled for nuclear fallout. Michelle offers a smile, but you can see Winstead working through this exchange wondering how Emmet’s eye rollers made the shooting script. But then – a glimpse of self awareness. Howard slams his fists on the table and explicitly tells Emmet that he’s “not funny”. Well, big boss, when you’re right, you’re right. Maybe this was the screenwriters admitting their failure to write engaging dialogue. Maybe not. Luckily for them the narrative is still coherent in spite of it. In fact they could assemble a cut using the silent takes from rehearsal and the film wouldn’t really suffer at all. There is strength in a simple story well edited.
And so it goes. Dialogue is incidental; moments of misdirection are clever but infrequent; interplay between the characters is mostly predictable. There’s an unnecessary (and bizarrely whimsical) montage sequence, and at least one plot thread is left unresolved. Worse, the ending – without giving anything away – reminded me of a movie trailer. That is to say that it ended with such an unsatisfying, sequel-begging tease that it felt like I’d just watched a trailer stretched out to feature length, and not a self-contained story.
There’s a lot to like about 10 Cloverfield Lane though. The crew’s technical achievements are undercut slightly by the writing but the whole thing is ultimately carried well by the actors. Winstead gives an assured and athletic performance as she navigates the ladders and ducts of the ghoulish bunker. Goodman is imposing and sympathetic and unhinged all at the same time, and Gallagher admirably rises above the occasionally weak lines on the occasionally weak page. A competent if unspectacular debut from director Dan Trachtenberg, and you can do a lot worse than that.
Alex Marsden studies film at Monash University by day, and watches movies all night.