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FILM REVIEW: The Mounting Sense of Dread Built up in “10 Cloverfield Lane” Eventually Loses Steam

REVIEW SUMMARY: Taut and often tense, with a good performance by Jonathan Goodman, this “blood relative” to the 2008 hit nonetheless loses steam as it progresses until it peters out in an unnecessary third act.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After a car accident, a woman wakes in an underground bunker with two men, one a handyman, the other a farm owner who believes the outside world has become uninhabitable due to an attack of unknown origin.

PROS: Good performance by John Goodman as Howard, with good supporting performances by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher, Jr.; spare direction…
CONS: …undermined by a screenplay that loses steam near before the third act; tacked-on and unconvincing climax and resolution.

What is a reasonable response to the end of the world? For Howard (John Goodman), that answer seems simple: an underground bunker to wait out the apocalypse. But as Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) soon realizes, Howard dispensed with reason, and perhaps sanity, some time ago. Awaking in his bunker after a terrible car accident (she had just left her apartment and partner Ben, voiced by Bradley Cooper—no real loss, in the opinion of this critic), she finds herself chained to a cement wall and a brace around her leg when Howard brings her food and informs her that he has just saved her life, informing her with the passionate intensity of the True Believer that the world they know is gone. As played by Goodman, Howard appears a dubious savior: the kindness he displays sublimates anger and delusion, a superego that barely keeps a lid on an id about to boil over. He withholds this kindness from Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), the bunker’s only other occupant, because he views Emmett’s presence as an intrusion. Emmett, in turn, acts less than thrilled with his benefactor—not surprising when the only option for survival is a well-stocked underground hideaway with an individual who has drunk too deeply from the conspiracy theory stream.

10 Cloverfield Lane surprises with its spare premise. For most of the movie’s 103­minute running time, the three characters never leave the bunker, making for a claustrophobic atmosphere and a mounting sense of dread. This allows screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle some question as to what drew Howard to save Michelle and Emmett by locking them in this controlled environment, inviting the audience to shape the disaster unfolding outside, or if indeed one actually occurred. Howard’s erratic behavior convinces Michelle that danger may be the byproduct of delusion mixed with loss—she learns that Howard’s daughter Meghan left with her mother to live in Chicago—until a woman approaches the bunker’s outer door and begs for entrance. Obviously injured, the woman screams and slams her head against the door’s glass. Given the little knowledge she and Emmett (and we) possess, they assumes that Howard’s belief that some that some anarchy has been loosed upon the world is correct, and begin to live some semblance of a normal life…until Michelle, asked to reset the bunker’s generator, makes a discovery that causes the center to lose its hold, forcing Michelle to formulate a plan for escape.

A premise that excludes the outside world and incites insanity requires actors who can find the right balance of seeming rationality and encroaching lunacy, a type of character whom Goodman knows quite well from movies like Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou? And for much of 10 Cloverfield Lane he balances Howard’s good-natured sensibility and disconnect from the real world with a deft performance, even if it never matches the intensity of Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance in The Shining. Winstead complements his performance, playing Michelle with the doubt and confusion one might face if placed in a similar situation, and possessing a resourcefulness and intelligence often outmatched in this cell of unreason. Her Michelle is resourceful and intelligent if not altogether convincing. By contrast, Johnson’s Emmett at times feels extraneous and perhaps too trusting, especially when one considers that his is the only character that shares any history of knowledge of Howard. (Emmett helped Howard build the bunker.) Nonetheless, for a while first-time director Dan Trachtenberg keeps his actors focused, maintaining an air of unease that he sustains until the middle of the second act, when the movie not only reverts to standard thriller fare but begins stacking the once-Spartan script with implausibilities, culminating with a third act that scraps the taut storyline in favor of a routine action-adventure climax, which I cannot reveal without divulging significant spoilers.

Producers J. J. Abrams and Lindsey Weber describe 10 Cloverfield Lane as a blood relative or spiritual sequel to the enjoyable, if often frustrating, Cloverfield. That movie surprised audiences with mix of kaiju and found-footage feature, opening storytelling avenues that wowed for its daring but today suggests cliché. 10 Cloverfield Lane actually ties in to the 2008 surprise hit, though the revelation of how, when it comes, never convinces, as if Campbell, Stuecken, and Chazelle lost faith in the story they decided to tell. Still, the terror they, Tractenberg, and the rest evoke at this new address elevates the location, even if what moves in by the movie’s end depresses the property value.

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