I know that everyone’s excited about Batman v. Superman being released this weekend but before you go off and spend your money to watch two comic book titans beat up on each other for six hours (or however long that damn movie is supposed to last), you should ask yourself, “Have I seen 10 Cloverfield Lane?”
If the answer to that question is no, you need to go out and see it now. Yes, even before you see Batman v. Superman. Batman v. Superman is going to be around for a while. 10 Cloverfield Lane has already been out for a couple of weeks and, though it’s done well enough, it still hasn’t quite become the blockbuster that it deserves to be.
Most of the talk about 10 Cloverfield Lane has centered around the twist ending. I’m not going to spoil the ending, even though you probably already know what it is. Oddly enough, as much as I liked the film, the ending didn’t really work for me. I liked the idea behind the ending more than I liked the actual execution. Add to that, it added an element of hope to a film that, up until that point, had been wonderfully and defiantly hopeless. The film’s ending also set things up for a sequel, one that will probably not be as interesting as the original.
Fortunately, the first 83 minutes of 10 Cloverfield Lane are so strong and well-executed that I can overlook any minor quibbles that I had with the final 20. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle. Michelle lives in New Orleans and, when we first meet her, she’s breaking up with her fiancée. (Though we never actually see him, the fiancée is played by Bradley Cooper. What is Michelle thinking!?) Leaving the safety of her apartment, Michelle goes for a drive in the country. (Going off to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night? It might not be a good decision but hey, we’ve all been there.) Suddenly, she starts to hear weird things on the radio. Cities across America are suffering from blackouts. She gets a call from her fiancée but before she can answer the phone, there’s a sudden a flash of light. Something crashed into her car from behind and Michelle blacks out.
When Michelle awakens, she’s in an underground bunker. Her host is Howard (John Goodman), a doomsday prepper who tells her that he saved her life. He explains that something has happened on the surface. The air is poisoned. The world is ending. The only safe place is in the bunker. Fortunately, Howard has an extensive collection of old VHS tapes, several teen magazines (“The quizzes have already been done,” Howard apologetically says), and a lot of food. He also has a change of clothes for Michelle to wear. Howard explains that the clothes once belonged to his daughter.
From the minute we meet him, it’s obvious that Howard is unstable. The only question is how unstable. The film makes brilliant use of John Goodman’s persona. When we see John Goodman, our automatic instinct is to like him. We’re used to seeing him playing good guys. What we forget, however, is that John Goodman has played his share of villains as well. He can be intimidating, as Michelle quickly realizes. Howard is unpredictable. One minute, he’s watching Pretty In Pink for the 100th time. The next minute, he’s threatening to dunk someone in acid.
It turns out that Howard and Michelle are not alone. The slightly dim but good-natured Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) is also in the bunker. Unlike Michelle, Emmett believes Howard’s claims about something terrible happening on the surface. Emmett also believes that, no matter how correct he may be about the end of the world, Howard still might be totally crazy.
So, is Howard crazy? You bet he is. That’s obvious from the minute we meet him. The brilliant thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that, even as it convinces us that Howard’s insane and dangerous, it still makes us wonder if he might be right. Director Dan Trachtenberg expertly captures the claustrophobic tension of life in that underground bunker and the script has a nicely satirical subtext. (The film’s best moments are when Howard attempts to play the role of patriarch to those who he is forcing to be his new family.) The film is brilliantly acted, especially by Mary Elizabeth Winstead who perfectly portrays both Michelle’s fear and her inner strength. As for John Goodman — well, you’ll probably never quite look at him the same way again.
10 Cloverfield Lane is an intelligent and well-crafted thriller. Don’t wait for Netflix. Don’t go to the dollar theater. If you haven’t already, see it now!