A film review by Craig J. Koban March 19, 2016

RANK:  #19


2016, PG-13, 105 mins.


Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle  /  John Goodman as Howard  /  John Gallagher Jr. as Emmett

Directed by Dan Trachtenberg  /  Written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle

CLOVERFIELD – which was then shrouded in more enigmatic secrecy than a typical STAR WARS franchise installment – kind of came out of relative nowhere back in 2008 and did a reasonably solid job of revitalizing the giant rampaging monsters genre.  Thanks largely to a brilliantly opaque marketing campaign and compelling usage of a found footage aesthetic, the J.J. Abrams produced and Matt Reeves directed affair assaulted audience members with a stark and efficient immediacy.  An inevitable sequel to it felt like a foregone conclusion. 

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is not a direct sequel, per se, to CLOVERFIELD, but more of a spiritual extension of that film’s storyline…if I could even label it as such.  With Abrams himself (returning as producer) rather strangely describing this new film as a “blood relative” to the one that preceded it, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE shares its antecedent’s core biological movie material in terms of delivering ample scares and tension with modestly low budget resources.  Even though the film (as far as I have inferred from watching it and based on interviews with key crew members) takes place at a different time and place, but in the same CLOVERFIELD universe, it nevertheless could not be any more intriguingly different.  CLOVERFIELD was high on the you-are-there shaky cam theatrics of the found footage genre, not to mention that it showed how common people responded to a monster’s invasion of their city from a ground zero perspective.  10 CLOVERFIELD LANE takes a more classical stylistic choice and is more insular and intimate in terms of its sparse setting and characters.   



Ostensibly taking place in one secluded location and involving just three visible characters throughout, the film’s sense of constrained claustrophobia becomes hauntingly unnerving as the story progresses.  And ever more so than the first CLOVERFIELD film, this one legitimately keeps you unhinged and guessing regarding its narrative secrets pretty much until its nail-biting climax.  The film’s introductory moments are deceptively simple, but methodically and masterfully orchestrated.  Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is trying to leave her city and escape from her boyfriend…that is until she’s involved in a horrific car accident on the highway.  When she awakens she finds herself in a concrete walled basement with no windows…and is chained to a nearby wall.  It appears that her captor may (or may not be) her actual savior.  Howard (a never been better – or more understatedly frightening –  John Goodman) reveals himself to her in a mostly congenial manner.  He apparently saved Michelle from her own car wreck and brought her to his underground bunker…and he did this for her own good. 

You see, Howard has positioned himself to Michelle as a survivalist hero, of sorts.  He explains to her that the outside world has had its air contaminated by a vast poison gas attack, leaving anyone above ground a sure-fire corpse within no time.  Now, what or who has caused this supposed chemical attack?  In Howard’s mind…it could have either been the Russians…the North Koreans…or even, yes, Martians, the latter leaving Michelle more than a bit distrusting of his motives and rationale.  Down there with them is Howard’s former handyman Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), whom matter-of-factly tells Michelle that he was not brought to Howard’s underground shelter, but rather he all but forced himself inside.  Michelle still remains steadfastly skeptical, but when obvious evidence surfaces to her that there are diseased and poisoned people that remains above ground, she’s forced to acquiesce to Howard’s story.  Howard’s plan is for the three of them to remain in his doomsday bunker until the atmosphere outside is safe for occupation…but in his mind that could take a year-plus.  Nevertheless, Michelle acclimatizes herself to her new home, but even as she grows to trust Howard more by the day, shocking clues are dropped that he just may (or may not be) a deranged sociopath.   

One key aspect that I appreciated about 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is that – unlike CLOVERFIELD – it’s a patient and slow-burn kind of psychological thriller first and an action thriller a distant second.  The film’s rookie director Dan Trachtenberg shows the instincts a cinematic veteran in terms taking his time establishing the particulars of his story while simultaneously keeping you in the complete dark about what in the hell is actually going on.  Much like a well oiled, old school TWILIGHT ZONE episode, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE maintains a white-knuckled sense of unease throughout, during which time a nagging and fearful sense of what’s to come lingers from scene to scene.  And again, this film’s tone and mood is a refreshing foil to that in CLOVERFIELD with its decidedly more close quartered apocalyptic surroundings; the majority of the film – sans a few key scenes – all take place within the constrictive confines of Howard’s bunker and you really feel the burdensome weight of Michelle’s growing suspicions of not only Howard’s character, but also whether or not the world outside is actually coming to an end. 

Howard himself is one of the more fascinatingly rendered movie villains of recent memory and is complimented by the pitch perfect casting of John Goodman.  The whole overwhelming sense of misdirection that the film serves up is largely due to Howard's worth as a trustworthy figure, not to mention how Goodman’s crafty performance never specifically telegraphs this man’s purity and/or overt corruption as a human being.  The questions that 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE poses to us about Howard are endlessly enthralling: Is he a lonely and kindly soul driven to help out young women in need because of the loss of his own daughter?  Or, is he a sickeningly depraved nutjob that tells lies about his past parenthood in order to falsely curtail sympathy in his young kidnapped victims?  Is the world really under a vast chemical attack that is exterminating the human race, thereby making Howard a true hero in saving Michelle and Emmett…or is it all just an elaborate smokescreen perpetrated by Howard’s complete mental break from reality?  One thing is for certain: Goodman plays Howard as a deeply focused man that’s eerily convinced of his own inherent righteousness…and that’s what ultimately makes him – regardless of his inherent decency or immorality – a truly imposing monster in his own right.    

Goodman’s tour de force work here is complimented rather finely by Winstead and Gallagher, the former that has to thanklessly run the wide emotional gambit in the story, ranging from complete fear to guarded apprehension and then to acceptance of her dire situation…and all of the conflicted emotions in-between.  The biggest star, though, of 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is Trachtenberg’s supremely confident direction.  Not only does he have to partake in the constant challenge of making the small boundaries of the bunker seem somehow visually dynamic, but he also has to find a way to make every individual room, hallway, and crawlspace there feel chillingly foreboding as potential sources of tangible danger.  Considering that this is his directorial debut, Trachtenberg’s reveals himself to be a real consummate film craftsman in terms of his abilities to provide nerve-jangling suspense in Hitchcockian ways.  10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is truly terrifying as a piece of cerebral horror for the methodical mind games it plays on viewers. 

The film unfortunately seems to write itself into a corner in the final 30 minutes or so, during which time answers to our specific questions regarding the reliability of Howard’s story involving a chemical attack from either Russia or aliens are – without spoiling anything – specifically, yet dissatisfyingly answered.  The final act somewhat devolves into the kind of perfunctory action thriller with explosions and large scale special effects that the previous two-thirds of the film were trying to avoid…and was frankly better off in doing just that.  Despite its somewhat weakly engineered climax, I was nevertheless mightily impressed with 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE as a highly effectual, astoundingly well acted, and meticulously directed sort-of-sequel, but-not-really-a-sequel.  Even more so than CLOVERFIELD, I found myself ultimately won over by this film’s extraordinary aptitude at segueing from preliminary unease and into full-out horror while utilizing a much smaller scale (the budget here was a paltry $5 million).  10 COVERFIELD LANE is nothing like CLOVERFIELD, which may leave many viewers hoping for a more direct follow-up entry in this series rather disappointed.  For me, though, it’s the film's complete dissimilarity from the 2008 franchise entry that makes it a truly novel standout in an era of fairly witless and obligatorily paint-by-numbers sequels.  


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