Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs The World), John Goodman (Argo), John Gallagher Jr. (Short Term 12)
Director: Dan Trachtenberg (Portal: No Escape)
Writers: Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)
Runtime: 1 hour 47 minutes
Release Date: 11 March (US), 18 March (UK)
Well, this came out of nowhere. There have been rumblings about a sequel to Cloverfield for years, but nothing firm ever seemed in place despite the found footage monster movie’s success. This can mainly be attributed to its key players (director Matt Reeves, writer Drew Goddard, and producer JJ Abrams) having all moved onto much bigger projects since. But then in January, a cryptic trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane pops up online and suddenly announces it’s going to be in cinemas in two months; Abrams is certainly known for his elusive marketing and secrecy, but this was one for the record books. What is this film? What’s it even about? How is it connected to Cloverfield? Well, I won’t say because this review is spoiler free, but I will say the answers may not satisfy you.
Talking about the plot of 10 Cloverfield Lane is tricky without revealing all of its secrets, and that’s especially annoying because that’s really where the film’s main problems lie. From a basic storytelling perspective, the film’s first act is excellent in creating a tense atmosphere that constantly keeps you on your toes. There were definitely moments where I had no idea where the story might go, and the film even does a good job of quickly debunking the easy answers early on. It’s not airtight, as typical Abrams quirks are present from the start, such as some clunky expository dialogue. You know, the kind where supporting characters speak in vague terms to seem mysterious, and so the protagonist constantly has to ask for clarification, thereby not-so-subtly providing the audience with important information? Yeah, that’s a writing crutch that needs to die. But despite this, the film keeps at a good pace and gradually ramps up the mystery, culminating in an exciting jump into a third act…and then the reveal happens. I won’t say what exactly goes down, but it’s clichéd, underdeveloped and ultimately unsatisfying. After doing so well to circumnavigate the obvious and really leave open the possibilities to something new or insane, the final ten minutes come off as slapdash and just leaves you with a whole new set of questions to the ones you had when the movie started. Again, I can’t say much without spoiling the whole thing, but I will say this: if the movie weren’t called 10 Cloverfield Lane, the ending would have been less obvious.
When creating a bottle film with a small cast of characters, it’s important that your minimal cast are not only good on their own but can bounce off each other effortlessly. The trio of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr. do just that in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Winstead’s Michelle makes for an interesting set of eyes to view the story through, arriving in this situation with her own set of baggage that only hints at an elaborate back-story. She achieves a strong balance between anxious captive and resourceful fighter, being just capable enough for her actions to be believable in this situation. By the end she perhaps suddenly becomes a little too proficient at things she’s never done before, but Winstead is at least sure to give Michelle a sense of humour about the situation. John Gallagher Jr. makes for an interesting addition to the threesome, acting as more of the everyman in this situation caught between two opposing views and struggling to decide where his allegiance lies. He too certainly has his depths, but they aren’t explored in as much detail. But in all honesty, John Goodman steals this movie from his first moments on screen. It’s a wonderfully unsettling performance that constantly leaves you feeling uneasy about what he might do next. There’s a lot of subtlety to his performance, hinting at hidden characterisation through simple things like cadence and body language, and he ultimately gains as much sympathy from the audience as he does fear.
Director Dan Trachtenberg has mainly worked in commercials and online video before his debut here (if you haven’t already, check out his awesome Portal fan film), so he’s used to working with limited resources. Probably thanks to that, he’s managed to create a visually interesting movie despite being limited to one location for most of the running time. There’s nothing too flashy on a production level until the film’s third act, but through simple things like camera movement and lighting he establishes a clear mood and style for the film. He also makes excellent use of visual storytelling in his direction, with very sparse dialogue in the film’s bookends and relying instead on character emotion and action to convey the story. The tension is further heightened by Bear McCreary’s excellent score, which feels suitably sombre or exciting for whatever the scene calls for.
There’s a lot of great things I can say about 10 Cloverfield Lane, but even if brief a problematic ending can spoil an otherwise good film. The first two thirds of the film are incredibly well directed and Goodman’s performance is one of his best in perhaps a decade, but I can’t help but feel that there was more to be said before the credits rolled. This is a constant problem with JJ Abrams’ obsession with mystery box storytelling: the anticipation almost always overshadows the payoff. If the film didn’t call so much attention to how secretive it is, it might have gotten away with the ending because we wouldn’t have been trying to figure it out so hard. If you really want to know the answers, I certainly don’t think seeing is a waste of time. Just be sure to lighten your expectations and don’t overthink every plot turn, or you’ll only end up setting yourself up for a letdown. If nothing else, I hope this film gives Dan Trachtenberg more directing opportunities, because he’s clearly a talented guy and has certainly worked hard to even make it this far.
FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10