10 Cloverfield Lane Dan Trachtenberg

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE Review: Just Needs to Shave Off a Few Minutes

Monday, March 14, 2016 Rob Samuelson

10 Cloverfield Lane

Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Writers: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, Damien Chazelle
Starring: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
In theaters now

Human beings are inherently distrustful creatures. They like to be in charge of their own destinies. It's why prisons are so psychologically disconcerting, because they take away prisoners' abilities to make their own decisions all the while being cooped up with people who do not inspire much confidence in their regard for others' safety. And it's why claustrophobic tales like 10 Cloverfield Lane work so well at instilling anxiety – if not abject, full-body clenched terror – in their viewers.

It begins with a feeling of something not being right and never once does it make its characters, nor its audience, feel like they can totally let their guard down at any time. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) packs her things in a hurry and drives away from her apartment, dodging calls from her fiance, whose ring she leaves behind on her trip north up a Louisiana highway. Only she doesn't get very far, because a truck slams into her car, which spins out, flips, and settles with the horn blaring into an embankment while the film's title cards silently intercut with the crashing noises of the accident.

That deployment of the credits is one of many clever tricks up director Dan Trachtenberg's sleeve in this, his feature film debut. His judgment in the deliberate dissemination of information is top notch, and the times when the movie gets too cute with its winks and nods to its franchise aspirations – it is ostensibly a follow-up to 2008's “giant monster destroys New York City” disaster piece, Cloverfield – feel tacked on by the movie's production company, Bad Robot, run by Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams. Trachtenberg's contributions, the ones he seemingly had most control over, are tense filmmaking done to the hilt.

The biggest reason for 10 Cloverfield Lane's success lies in the interplay between its three leads. Winstead is on a roll after her part as a damaged-yet-calculating cult member in last year's Faults. Here, she is able to dive into her fears, but as Michelle, her nearly supernatural resourcefulness never allows her to fall into hopelessness – she is a figure of determination, even as she is hobbled by her injuries and disoriented by her new surroundings, in a stranger's disaster survival bunker.

That stranger is Howard, played by John Goodman as a controlling, unhinged man obsessed with credibility and respect after a lifetime of being mocked for his complete devotion to a state of preparedness. Now that his paranoia has been vindicated by a chemical attack – perhaps by the Russians, or Martians, as he so assuredly states – he grows all the more resolute in his monstrosity. It got him this far and it saved the lives of Michelle and his former employee, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). And he will not stand for a “year or two” of disrespect by these two youthful ingrates while they wait out the effects of the attack to diminish.

But did the attack actually happen? Or is Howard a kidnapping maniac with a well-defined survival instinct? The skepticism on the part of everyone, toward themselves, each other, and the outlandish situation itself, is where the film's tension comes from. With the help of a terse script by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle, Trachtenberg puts the tricks of filmmaking to use.

When the story requires it, 10 Cloverfield Lane can feel humongous within its tiny location. Shots of the stairwell leading to the bunker's entrance hatch look impossibly long, showing the faraway promise of sunlight and freedom from the horrors inside, even if the unknown beyond the bunker's confines is just as terrifying. The impossible choice leaves the three inhabitants in a state of not-always-peaceful cohabitation that is intermittently relieved with putting together puzzles and listening to soul-pop classics on the jukebox. They develop something of a necessary comfort around each other, even if it's tempered by a walking-on-eggshells timidity brought on by Howard's possible personality disorder and seemingly legitimate fear of the things causing the rumbling noises atop the bunker.

The trust builds and diminishes as the screws of tension tighten toward a breaking point. Characters unveil their deepest regrets and fears through information both true and false, often in order to gain the upper hand over the other two in the bunker. Alliances, quick-thinking lies, and escape plans are hurriedly spouted by the these three prisoners. It comes to a sickening head when the dangers of the known and unknown collide.

As described above, 10 Cloverfield Lane comes off as a borderline masterpiece of tension. That is not fully the case, because it has its share of faults. They are forgivable and generally innocuous when it comes to the enjoyment of a piece of pop entertainment, but they exist and they keep it from fully blossoming into greatness.

It gets too convenient with its protagonist's capabilities. Michelle's primary skill, her life's passion before entering the bunker, is only revealed after it is useful to the plot. It is not telegraphed in a Chekhov's gun sort of way to make it feel natural to Michelle's life. It is cheapened by this lack of being up front. It is something that should not be a reveal but a part of who she is from the outset. It requires some information to be moved around to reach its full impact.

The film's primary issue is doing exactly the sort of thing Abrams and company are often criticized for not doing. It answers its questions too definitively. There are some questions left at the end, but overall the storytelling thrust of the film – what happened outside the bunker? – becomes known in too literal a way. Not knowing is what drives every good part of 10 Cloverfield Lane, and the air goes out of its sails in a rush once it picks its resolution when there is no need for it. If it had ended five or 10 minutes earlier, with panicked, gasping breathing and a manic application of duct tape, it could very well have been the genre masterpiece mentioned earlier. But it has franchise obligations attached to it, which it explores in a visually exciting way, although it is unnecessary. That it remains an eminently watchable suspense thriller is a testament to how well it runs despite not every piston firing. 

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