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Dustin Putman

10 Cloverfield Lane  (2016)
3½ Stars
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg.
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr., Suzanne Cryer; voice of Bradley Cooper.
2016 – 103 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for thematic material, violence and brief language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, March 10, 2016.
In an age when pre-release spoilers run rampant on the Internet and movies can never be kept completely secretive during their path to screens, somehow creator-producer Drew Goddard and co-producer J.J. Abrams have achieved this near-impossible feat twice—first with director Matt Reeves' awesome, chilling 2008 found-footage monster thriller "Cloverfield," and again eight years later with Dan Trachtenberg's breathlessly riveting companion piece "10 Cloverfield Lane." Less than two months prior to the latter's March 2016 opening, virtually no one aside from the people involved in its making knew it existed. When the exceptionally intriguing but tastefully shady trailer premiered, it caught everyone unaware and rightfully sent "Cloverfield" fans (myself included) into an anticipatory whirlwind. Indeed, it is still possible to surprise viewers, and "10 Cloverfield Lane" does just that throughout its airtight 103-minute running time.

On the run from relationship woes, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is hit by a truck while driving through rural Louisiana. When she comes to, she finds herself chained up in a barren room. Gradually, more details come to light, though Michelle has no way of knowing how legit they are. A middle-aged farmer, Howard (John Goodman), has brought her to the fully stocked underground bunker he has built on his property. His conscientious forward thinking, he claims, has saved both of their lives—and that of a third occupant, local acquaintance Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.)—following the fallout from a deadly airborne contagion. Howard is adamant no one else above ground has survived, but Michelle isn't quite sure if his words are truthful or the dishonest ravings of a mentally unhinged lunatic set on holding her and Emmett hostage.

A chamber suspenser with real armrest-grabbing power, "10 Cloverfield Lane" is the brainchild of talented first-time director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriters Josh Campbell & Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle (2014's "Whiplash"). A spiritual cousin to "Cloverfield" that stands on its own while also complementing that unforgettable earlier picture, the film is stylistically completely different (goodbye, first-person lensing) while crisscrossing subgenres and averting expectations in savvy, creative ways. Is it a bubbling captivity potboiler of physical and psychological warfare? A spooky post-apocalyptic horror picture? A nervy, blackly funny domestic satire, one where characters keep up appearances—they eat dinner together, play board games, do puzzles, listen to golden oldies on the jukebox (including Bobby James and the Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now" and The Exciters' "Tell Her")—while sharing living quarters with someone as scary as whatever exists in the outside world? It is all of these things, and then much more. Part of the fun is in not knowing what to expect next, and the other half is being taken on a ride by filmmakers who know exactly what they are doing.

The cast primarily consists of just three actors, and there isn't a weak link among them. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (2013's "The Spectacular Now") is the gripping focal point of every scene as Michelle; the narrative may not be told from her literal point-of-view as she holds a camera, but viewers remain by her side, vicariously experiencing, for better or worse, what she does. The transformation Michelle goes through, from a young woman who feels as if she runs away from everything in life to someone finding the strength and empowerment to face her troubles head-on, is captured with a perceptive, affirming touch. Winstead is emotionally available and sympathetic in the kind of three-dimensional role most actors would dream of receiving.

As Emmett, John Gallagher Jr. (2010's "Jonah Hex") holds a calming, ingratiating spirit as the only person with whom Michelle is able to confide as she begins to wonder how many dirty, harrowing secrets Howard is keeping from them. John Goodman (2015's "Love the Coopers") is sensational as Howard, his character a fascinating original whom Emmett pointedly describes as having "a black belt in conspiracy theories." Goodman plays every side to perfection—his loneliness and vulnerability, his fist-clenching short fuse, his simmering paranoia, and his manipulative, potentially violent sociopathy. When Michelle and Howard face off, as they must, it is electrifying.

For a motion picture about which audiences have been kept mischievously in the dark, "10 Cloverfield Lane" has plenty of unforeseen tricks up its sleeve. It is crucial, especially, that the third act not be given away. Suffice it to say, the "edge-of-your-seat" expression was made for climaxes like this, hitting crescendos of awe, terror and giddy excitement. Meanwhile, composer Bear McCreary's (2016's "The Boy") uncommonly tense music score adds to the intimidation of the story and cinematographer Jeff Cutter (2010's "A Nightmare on Elm Street") brings an indelible, foreboding balance to each frame. Told from a new angle, in a new setting, in an imaginative new form, "10 Cloverfield Lane" deep-sixes the citywide carnage of "Cloverfield" for a zeroed-in narrative where newfound spatial intimacy takes away none of the awe-inspiring immediacy, grandeur and dread which so astoundingly typified its predecessor.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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