Published on March 17th, 2016 |
by Leslie Erickson
Abrams’ 10 Cloverleaf Lane is a claustrophobic thrill ride
“Crazy is building your ark after the flood has already come.” – Howard
10 Cloverfield Lane
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writers: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken (story, screenplay); Damien Chazelle (screenplay)
Stars: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
Seldom does a big film reach the box office these days without a long buildup over months and sometimes years. Many films are announced when they are conceptualized, and stars are cast and discarded all in the public eye.
Social media has become the first wave of promotion for anticipated blockbuster films and rarely is a film a total surprise, especially if it’s a project by a major name like J. J. Abrams. However, his latest project, 10 Cloverfield Lane, did just that. Only announced with the release of its trailer two months before its box office debut last week, the suspense thriller continues to surprise audiences even as they sit in the darkened theater.
Although produced by the recognizable Abrams, the film is directed by filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg as his first full-length motion picture. The tightly wound film is claustrophobic and compelling
– set almost entirely in an underground bunker, Trachtenberg uses tight camera angles and shadowy lighting to build and retain tension.
The characters are often filmed in tight close ups, and the forced intimacy of the surroundings is juxtaposed with their distance emotionally. The three characters in the film are constantly engaged in a cat and mouse game, and we’re never sure who will eat whom as the action plays out.
The set up is simple – a woman is run off the road and wakes up captive in a cement block room. Her captor is a doomsday prepper who already has another tenant in his bunker, and he tells them that the end of the world is happening outside and no one can survive outside of his bunker. But that is where simplicity ends.
The woman, Michelle, doesn’t know whether her captor, Howard, is delusional, psychotic, or just visionary in his anticipation of the end of the world. And the other inhabitant of the bunker, Emmett, is a backwoods country boy already sharing the space with Howard when Michelle arrives. Neither the audience nor Michelle are sure whether Emmett is there voluntarily or if he’s been abducted too. These questions drive the action forward and keep the audience riveted as the story unfolds.
Part of the success of the film is its casting. Michelle is played convincingly as a cross between victim and bad ass by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Emmett is played by John Gallagher Jr. as a doe-eyed, gentle simpleton. The two combine as a great contrast to John Goodman’s creepy, complex, and unknowable Howard.
While Winstead and Gallagher are very good, Goodman is terrific. His performance is nuanced and subtle, with the threat of violence and madness bubbling just below the surface. It’s hard to look away when he’s on screen, and he creates a feeling of impending and imminent chaos from the first moment he appears.
Goodman’s character is not all that’s unknowable in this film. The questions are constant as we try to sort out what exactly is the truth of the situation – is Howard simply a madman who has kidnapped a woman to keep her for himself, or is he that visionary who anticipated the very real end of the world? Is the world unsafe and dangerous, or does the danger really just exist inside the bunker? If the world outside is unsafe, what happened? Have aliens landed or has the U.S. been conquered by a more traditional foe gone rogue?
The film’s appeal lies in those questions that haunt the characters and us. We never feel like we have a real grasp of the situation, and the ride is wild, making unexpected turns all the way through.
So if you’re up for a thrilling, wild ride, take up residence for a little while at 10 Cloverfield Lane. While you won’t get much time to relax there, you’ll be glad you did.
Leslie Erickson is an avid cinephile and bibliophile living in Sioux City. From September through May, when not watching films or reading, she teaches literature and writing at Western Iowa Tech Community College. In the summer, she spends her time hiking and backpacking through the wilderness in one or another of the western states, occasionally taking breaks in air-conditioned theaters to catch a new release.