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Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg

Premise: A woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is knocked unconscious in a car accident. She wakes up in an elaborate underground shelter with two other men (John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr.) who claim that a chemical attack has made life on the surface impossible.
What Works: It is unclear at this point if 10 Cloverfield Lane is or is not related to the 2008 found footage picture Cloverfield and it doesn’t really matter. The new film is a self-contained work and it plays like an episode of The Twilight Zone. The movie takes place on an intimate scale. The core cast is only three people and most of the action takes place within an underground bunker. But as in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, those limitations offer creative opportunities which the filmmakers seize upon to make a very effective thriller. 10 Cloverfield Lane unfolds as a slow burn. Very little of this film takes place at the surface and so we have as little information as the main character. That allows the filmmakers to toy with our expectations, which they do with Hitchcockian skill. Because of its scale, 10 Cloverfield Lane is primarily a character-driven film and it has three terrific performances by the core cast. The film is led by Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a woman who was knocked unconscious under mysterious circumstances and wakes up in an underground shelter. She initially believes she has been abducted and sorts through the information from her new companions who are of uncertain reliability. Winstead does a very good job in the role. The character is smart and resourceful but Winstead also allows her to be credibly frightened and confused in a way that makes her empathetic. She is paired with John Gallagher Jr. as another survivor who has taken shelter. His roll is less showy but he still very good and Gallagher is able to be something unusual in Hollywood movies: a rural, uneducated, blue collar character who is a genuine person and not a stereotypical hick. The major performance of 10 Cloverfield Lane is provided by John Goodman as the owner of the shelter. His character might be a good Samaritan who is just neurotic or he might be a lying psychopath and Goodman’s performance is unpredictable and volatile. The real mystery of the movie is not what’s happened on the surface but is going on in character’s heads and the filmmakers create an oppressive atmosphere of claustrophobia. The bunker has a homey feel at first but gradually becomes prison-like, subtly creating the need to escape. 

What Doesn’t: 10 Cloverfield Lane is a movie that works best if the audience knows little about it. In that respect this is a gimmick picture, much like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects. Much of the joy to be had from this movie is found in the twists and the way in which the film toys with our understanding of what is going on. As a result, the film may not play as well on repeat viewings. The filmmakers of 10 Cloverfield Lane do such a great job of keeping viewers guessing about what is happening on the surface that the ending of the film suffers from their success. Like a lot of good mysteries, what is most interesting and enjoyable about 10 Cloverfield Lane is the impenetrability of the truth. As long as it is ambiguous, the film has an unpredictable element that keeps us engaged. But, as in most mysteries, when the truth is concretized it is underwhelming. Any explanation would be. And to some extent the explanation is immaterial. The point of 10 Cloverfield Lane is not really found in its climax but in everything leading up to it. When the truth of the matter is revealed it’s a bit of a letdown. It isn’t that the answer is bad or stupid. But in its final sequence, 10 Cloverfield Lane loses its ambiguity and becomes a standard kind of movie with familiar thrills.

Bottom Line: 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very satisfying thriller. The movie is smartly executed and has terrific performances. The picture may stumble in its ending but on the whole this is a very good movie.

Episode: #587 (March 20, 2016)