Saturday, March 12, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane (mild spoilers)

10 Cloverfield Lane is J.J. Abrams playing with us and doing it well. When the trailer appeared online a couple of months ago it wasn’t apparent if Abrams had produced a sequel to his surprise hit Cloverfield or if he was merely indulging a taste for surprises already displayed in Super 8 and the introduction of a certain smoke monster to a certain TV island. The finished product is a well-executed genre film that may (or may not) connect to an already established cinematic universe. After watching the film the inclusion of the word Cloverfieldin the title feels like quite a tease; producer Abrams and director Dan Trachtenberg (working from a script co-authored by Whiplash director Damien Chazelle) play to our love of the movie franchise while delivering something small, shocking, and mean.

We don’t know why Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her unseen fiance in the opening scene. Trachtenberg doesn’t let us hear the phone message she leaves him but instead plays the insistent score of Bear McCreary over shots of Michelle clearing out of her apartment. One stop at a spooky Louisiana gas station later and Michelle is waking up after a car accident in the well-stocked underground bunker of a man named Howard (John Goodman) whose intention seems to be to keep her alive. Howard tells Michelle she can’t return to the surface; a biological attack of unknown origin has left everyone dead. The bunker’s other occupant is a hired hand named Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.), a gentle sort who thinks Howard is to be trusted. The heart of 10 Cloverfield Lane is Michelle’s effort to find out if that’s true. A close-quarters film like this one is of course actor dependent, and Abrams and Trachtenberg have nailed casting with the pairing of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. Winstead has wound up in more than a few horror films over the years, but she’s capable of much more - see Scott Pilgrim or her Oscar worthy turn in Smashed - and is perfect for what turns out to be a psychological duel. Her natural intelligence is well-matched with John Goodman’s richly detailed study in paranoia. It’s terrific to see Goodman’s turn his charm into something menacing; the more we come to understand Howard’s motivations the more his references to an absent daughter hint at a disturbing past.

The tension of 10 Cloverfield Lane is released after an act of violence, and your opinion of the ending is a function of your tolerance for ambiguity. We can reveal that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a good actress even when fleeing and fighting; in the unfortunate event that someone ever remakes Alien then Winstead would make a fine Ellen Ripley. It does seem likely that there will be more Cloverfield films at some point, and while Abrams’s desire to vary casts and tones is appealing it also wouldn’t be the worst idea to keep Winstead around. 10 Cloverfield Lane - a film we didn’t need and weren’t aware we wanted - is a pleasant diversion made with some craft, and in a film where there’s this much fleeing that is good enough for me.

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