10 Cloverfield Lane arrived with an air of mystery, which is something increasingly welcome these days, as every film arrives in theaters complete with revealed plot twists, cameos, and spoilers galore. By contrast, no one even knew 10 Cloverfield Lane existed until its fantastic teaser dropped, one that hinted at so much while telling us absolutely nothing. And none of that even gets into the title, which hinted a connection to Cloverfield, a pretty great monster movie that dropped with a similar lack of fanfare and buildup.
Now, I love that trailer and what it promises. I love the mood of the whole thing. I love the intense psychological games it hints at. And I love, love, love the lack of buildup. But the thing that truly sold me on the movie? The chance to see John Goodman in a role worthy of his presence.
See, I’m a big fan of Goodman, who I generally feel is one of the more underrated actors out there. He’s an actor who’s capable of a tremendous amount of range; more than that, he can slide effortlessly between those moods as the scene demands, ranging from likable slob to terrifying figure of death and back again within a few sentences. And yet, for the most part, Goodman doesn’t get to do much in most films he’s in, unless they’re Coen brothers films; they seem to be one of the few people who realize what Goodman can bring to the screen. Luckily, though, Dan Trachtenberg seems to have been paying attention too, because he gives Goodman one hell of a role here.
It’s sort of hard to talk about 10 Cloverfield Lane, simply because so much of the film benefits from knowing as little as possible. This is a film that plays its cards close to its chest, and rightfully so; much of the tension comes from not knowing the truth about what’s going on, or what motivates people. So let’s just lay out the basic premise, one that’s established quickly and efficiently within the opening minutes of the film: a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is driving away from a relationship when she’s in an accident and runs off the road. When she awakens, she’s bandaged, attached to an IV, and handcuffed to a rail; as soon as she realizes that, a man (Goodman) comes in and tells her that he saved her life, and that she needs to rest; more than that, he tells her that there’s been an attack. And everyone outside is dead.
But is that the truth? Does Goodman have ulterior motives? Is that someone else she hears in the bunker? And…wasn’t that a car she heard outside?
Much of 10 Cloverfield Lane is spent unraveling those questions, sometimes more than once, as new information comes to light. And director Dan Trachtenberg does the material right, using the claustrophobia of the situation to maximum effect, and letting Winstead and Goodman carry the story – and their inner lives/thoughts – through their physical performances. Goodman is in fantastic form here; at moments, he’s endearing and charming, and then terrifying within a single breath – all of which keeps us from ever quite knowing how much we can trust him. And his performance keeps the film moving along nicely, adjusting at the film moves through layers and layers of answers, and ultimately hinting at a backstory that we never quite know for sure. But Winstead is just as good here, playing a character for whom honesty and open expression are rarely, if ever, an option. Rather than turning her into a weak damsel in distress, Winstead is capable and smart, and like Goodman, she allows her physical performance to tell her story where her dialogue often can’t. The result is a gripping piece of psychological gamesmanship, with both characters jockeying for power, questioning what they’re told, and scheming against each other – unless they’re not. And that, combined with the constant dread and claustrophobia, as well as our anxiety about what’s outside, makes for a fantastic piece of storytelling.
And then, there’s the film’s final act, which goes…well, it goes for broke, without a doubt. In some ways, that final act is a step too far; there’s a moment where the film could have ended, and instead, it keeps going, ultimately resulting in something that feels a bit too over-the-top, a bit too actiony for a film that’s been so much about small actions and psychological games. And yet, I kind of loved the weird gutsiness of that final section, which makes a decision and absolutely runs with it, and to hell with expectations or assumptions. There are some good arguments about why the ending works (if you’ve seen the film, I highly recommend Tasha Robinson’s piece about how the final act represents the completion of Winstead’s arc), but in the end, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it sort of hurt my feelings on the film as a whole.
Bizarre ending notwithstanding, though, I’d still pretty highly recommend the film. There’s something wonderful about seeing something original these days, especially when almost everything else in theaters is a comic book film, a sequel, or a remake. In that atmosphere, along comes this film, which manages to be smart, engaging, tense, and just generally a great time. And if the worst you can say is that it goes in an unexpected direction, isn’t that sometimes half the pleasure of films – getting something you never thought you would?