While the film’s title will likely be what intrigues casual moviegoers, it’s certainly not what will make them hold their breaths and grip the edge of their seats.
For most of its runtime, 10 Cloverfield Lane commits to being a character-centered film, and that’s when it truly shines. The relationships between Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Howard (John Goodman), and Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) – constantly developing and turning upside down – provide this small-scale thriller with all the drama and tension it needs. Not only do these three share a dynamic chemistry with one another, they’re very much in control of their own actions. Sure, the script does fundamentally dictate what they do, go, or say, but their choices feel organic in that we always understand why they’re being made and are believable. As a result, at this picture’s core are three strong characters whom we can emotionally invest in, heightening the suspense all the more.
There’s plenty of juicy material for the cast members to sink their teeth into, and they deliver wonderful performances. Gallagher takes what could have been a generic role and injects it with gravitas, and as a result, Emmett progresses from an incompetent idiot to a competent, charismatic fellow. Winstead is a real tour-de-force, effortlessly conveying a wide range of emotions. She also makes sure we never lose sight of the fact that Michelle is a smart woman who knows how to look out for herself. Finally, there’s Goodman, who establishes and maintains a terrifying presence from the moment his character enters the frame and even when he is offscreen. The key to his performance lies in us constantly guessing just how insane and emotionally unhinged Howard really is, and Goodman perfectly hits every note here.
Much has been made about the nature of the film’s ending, and I can certainly see why. The climax sees the realization of Howard’s claims regarding the threat outside, and while I won’t deny that it makes for a fun sequence, I don’t think it fully works, and it took me out of the movie. Now, it makes sense in terms of Michelle’s character arc, as her progression from survivor to fighter – which I greatly appreciated – comes to a close here. However, my issue with how it plays out is that the threat’s scale clashes with the rest of the film, which again was designed to be a small-scale thriller. It’s the same issue I had with The Hand in the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil: the title character works on a citywide scale, but The Hand represents a global threat that doesn’t mesh well with it. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t have been aliens in this film’s finale; I think that tonally, it would be better if the film’s climax involved a cat-and-mouse game between Michelle and the aliens that didn’t bring in a giant spacecraft. When the ship is revealed, it’s jarring because there wasn’t a buildup to it that makes it feel earned. Essentially, it acts as a shift in tone that occurs too late to feel organic.
What makes the film even more impressive is just how it comes together. To shoot the majority of the film in basically four rooms may sound like a daunting task, but director Dan Trachtenberg (helming his first feature here) and cinematographer Jeff Cutter approach it with confidence. They place the camera in positions that enhance the feeling of claustrophobia and also maintain the characters as the focus of our attention. Stefan Grube’s editing adds tension during the action sequences and keeps the film moving at a brisk pace. The sound work is stellar, as each noise pops – particularly in an early scene involving a car crash – with such clarity to keep us on our toes. Composer Bear McCreary’s evocative score invites us in with hints of curiosity, only to fill us with dread once we’re in the film’s clutches.
Released at a time typically referred to as the dead period for movies (January to March), 10 Cloverfield Lane proves to be a surprising yet refreshing breath of air. This is an assured film that knows where its strengths lie and uses them to great effect, so to see it unfold is quite a joyful moviegoing experience.
* Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures