10 Cloverfield Lane

March 17, 2016
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in '10 Cloverfield Lane' (2016)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in '10 Cloverfield Lane' (2016)

Would you like to wake up and find yourself locked in a bunker with John Goodman? In 10 Cloverfield Lane this is exactly what happens to Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays Michelle, a young woman who leaves her fiancée and heads off on a road trip. After a car accident she regains consciousness chained to the wall of a barren cell, one injured leg in a splint.

“Oh-oh, it’s another sadistic sex maniac’s basement!” we think, at the same time the thought occurs to Michelle, who must have also seen Room.

However, Goodman’s Howard claims to be Michelle’s saviour rather than her captor. He tells how he rescued her from the wreckage of her car and brought her to his bunker. She can’t leave though because the United States has just been bombed to smithereens by an invader. It may be the Ruskies, explains Howard, but more likely the Martians or some other extra-terrestial force.

At this point Michelle (and we the audience), are convinced that Howard is a total loon. Matters get a little more complicated when Michelle talks with the bunker’s only other occupant, a young guy named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who helped Howard build his refuge. Emmett tells Michelle that he hasn’t been kidnapped. He hammered on the door until Howard let him in.

For at least the first half of this film we can’t be sure of anything. Three people are locked in uneasy co-habitation, with Howard playing the role of pater familias. The outside world may or may not be destroyed. The human race may or may not be decimated. The air may or may not be toxic or radioactive. The only certainty is that Howard is a seriously disturbed individual. He talks sadly and longingly of his lost daughter, Megan, and wants Michelle to wear her clothes.

He has moments of disarming jollity when he plays sixties pop songs on the juke box or sits down to watch a video of Pretty in Pink (“Megan’s favourite”), but for the most part he is morose and paranoid.

No-one could be better in this role than John Goodman, whose menacing bulk is usually displayed in comic roles nowadays. There are times when he makes Howard seem like a sad, warm-hearted guy, although he can plunge into a rage at a moment’s notice. He’s not exactly a character that gradually wins you over. On the contrary, prolonged contact brings growing unease about the secrets he appears to be concealing.

For a moment there is something close to harmony in this unconventional household – although ‘resignation’ might be a better word. Later there are unexpected twists that I can’t discuss without revealing too much of the plot.

One of the peculiarities of this movie is that it is a kind of non-sequel to a 2008 ‘found footage’ monster movie called Cloverfield, also produced by J.J. Abrams, best known as the director of the recent Star Wars movie. Abrams talks about a “Cloverfield franchise” but there is only the most tenuous link between the two films. Some would say there is none whatsoever, with an unrelated story grafted onto an existing brand. I’m sure there’ll soon be a third Cloverfield movie that clears up the confusion.

It raises the intriguing idea of a Hollywood franchise in which each new installment explores a different genre. So far we’ve had a monster movie and a hybrid that combines the claustrophobia of a woman held in captivity, with the suggestion of a world ravaged by nuclear apocalypse. What’s next? Zombies in Cloverfield? The Cloverfield Games?

This is a first feature for director, Dan Trachtenberg, who is skilful at using the camera to create suspense, but relies rather too heavily on a melodramatic score by Bear McCreary.

Ultimately 10 Cloverfield Lane comes across as a medium-strength thriller that owes everything to Goodman’s performance. It’s a movie to warm the hearts of any American Survivalist willing to leave his bunker for a night at the flicks. Howard is a fine example of the breed, who would have been adequately prepared even if doomsday had never arrived. When all the world lies in ruins there remains the small pleasure of saying: “I told you so.”

10 Cloverfield Lane
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken & Damien Chazelle
Starring John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.
USA, rated M 103 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 19th March, 2016.