10 Cloverfield Lane and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg
Look, I barely remember the original Cloverfield, so I’m not gonna have a clue if this has any connection to it other than if the monster itself shows up for a cameo. That seems to be working in my favor though because the movie is not being sold as a direct sequel (some are calling it a “blood relative” of the original) and it also means I won’t be distracted by looking for connections or hidden Easter Eggs while watching it. Besides, who needs ANY of that giant monster stuff when the real monster is… man? Yeah, it seems to be one of those movies (aggressively small cast in a claustrophobic environment) which can be REALLY compelling if all the pieces come together correctly; leaving very little room for error considering how sparse the resources they have to work with are. Is this going to be an amazingly taut thriller for the modern day, or will this be a simple cash grab for a studio that didn’t have faith in a bottle film making enough money without attaching it to a completely unrelated movie? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaving her husband for unknown reasons and eventually getting into a car crash on her way to… somewhere. That’s not too important though as she wakes up to find herself in a small cell; shackled to the wall like a prisoner of some kind. It doesn’t take long for her captor to reveal himself (Howard played by John Goodman) and inform her that the world has more or less ended while she was unconscious, and that he’s taken her to his fallout shelter to ride out the apocalypse. In the bunker as well is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr) who doesn’t seem to be thrilled sharing a space with Howard, but somehow finagled his way in as a way to survive whatever it is that’s going on outside. Without any real information to go on, Michelle eventually capitulates into staying with Howard and Emmett for the time being, but also seems cautious of Howard who is clearly a psychological mess, and extremely dangerous. Can the three of them survive whatever is going on outside by staying in this bunker together, or will they all kill each other in the process? What exactly IS lurking out there that they need to be protected from? Will Howard at any point take a chill pill!?
I’m at somewhat of a loss when it comes to this movie. I can list off a litany of faults that this movie has and every one of them would be valid, but even with that I can’t say this is a TERRIBLE movie. And yet, I am just filled with HATE whenever I think about it. Hell, I knew five minutes into the movie (before John Goodman even shows up) that I was going to loath this movie, and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how exactly I knew THAT early that I was going to hate it THAT much. Everyone’s acting is fine if broad, the cinematography is decent (though I would give the accolades to the set designers for that), and when taken in pieces, the movie is very tense. I don’t like the script one bit and I think the direction is ham fisted which is where I believe almost all of the anger is coming from, but then my response to it is so vitriolic that it’s probably something that’s only going to enrage me and not most others who go see it. It’s… fine, but I don’t have any desire to EVER see it again as entertainment. To study it and maybe do a follow up? Sure, but this was not a fun sit for me at all.
The movie doesn’t let anything play out naturally. It doesn’t allow the characters to be characters because the film is trying so god damn hard to make this seem like a mystery when nothing that IS mysterious here is worth a damn. It’s shockingly predictable, yet plays out like we’re dumb enough to NOT know what the fuck is going on. John Goodman is a great actor and does a decent job playing a terrible person in here, but over half his dialogue is ominous and on the nose. The fact that Emmett never doubts him for most of the movie or Michelle at ANY point starts to trust him is baffling and feels disingenuous. How many damn times does he name drop Megan, and who didn’t expect that to be a “What A Twist” moment later on in the movie? How come the two people living with him are buying into his crap when he’s doing everything he can to send off Don’t Trust Me vibes? It feels like more of a mystery game such Clue or something where characters and settings only exist to inform the mystery and not to put us in a believable or engaging environment. Can this approach work? Yes, but only when the mystery itself is interesting or has some cleverness to it. There’s nothing clever, interesting, or unique about a single aspect of this movie, so when we start getting reveals, they’re the first things we had thought of over an hour ago. Even the Red Herrings in here are so fucking obvious that they don’t sell for a single god damn second, and yet the biggest one in the movie informs so much of what happens in the rest of it. Here’s the thing though. It wouldn’t have mattered if the big Red Herring turned out to be true or not. The fact that they tried to push it so hard ruined any value that it had. It’s like a magician who goes on and on and on with the setup and the stuff we know is just for show in the lead up for the trick. They take too long and ham it up so much that it takes the power out of whatever it is they were trying to do, especially considering it was a pretty rudimentary sleight of hand. It’s not an all-time classic plot twist like in The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense, but it sure as hell thinks it is.
A lot of this may not make much sense considering how much I have to tap dance around spoilers (the insidious nature of the JJ Abrams Mystery Box) but to put it simply, there is not enough of a payoff for the set up. There is too much of this movie’s run time that’s wasted to obfuscate a mystery we already solved (and honestly is completely irrelevant to the proceedings) and there too many moments where characters talk or act in a way that makes no sense and only happens to have the audience question what’s really going on and what people know. The best example of this is a hilarious game of The $100,000 Pyramid (home edition!) where Howard starts to say things that indicate… something, but it’s all a big fucking gag that doesn’t fit in the movie that’s being made. I understand throwing comedic moments into a taut thriller (part of the tension/release cycle) but it doesn’t work when the actors break character to do something completely out of left filed just to momentarily ratchet up the tension and then play it off like a gag. I tend to like movies that FEEL like movies, but this is an example of that not working at all. It feels manipulative and pretentious, yet doesn’t reward the audience with a clever enough climax to justify it.
All of that though might just be MY problem. Even if the story is predictable and the dialogue ham handed, I highly doubt that that many people are going to be as pissed off as I was about it, so we might as well move into what I thought was good about the movie. As I said, John Goodman’s dialogue is may be obnoxiously auspicious, but his performance here is great. I loved the way he was characterized here as The Nice GuyTM writ large which makes this another movie that feels refreshingly relevant in today’s world. He constantly does things for Michelle whether she likes it or not and then constantly expects gratitude and respect for it without ever once considering her feelings or state of mind. This comes across through every line he says that ISN’T an obvious hint to… whatever it is that he’s hiding, and it’s absolutely chilling. Hell, it’s even funny (in a REALLY dark way) at one point during the previously mentioned game scene where he can’t figure out an answer (Little Women) because he cannot associate that word with Michelle. Words that come to mind like Girl and Princess (another few seconds to guess and he probably would have said Waifu) make it PAINFULLY clear what he thinks of her and how toxic those feelings can be in such a confined (and dependent) environment. On top of the solid acting (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr do fine in their roles), the sets and music are spot on and dripping with thematic resonance that it’s probably the most authentic aspect of this movie. Such a fantastic set could have been used for a smarter or less predictable film and it ends up elevating the material above what it actually deserves. See, this is why I’m having such a hard time wrapping my head around why I HATED the experience so much. There’s SO much good in here peppered in between the stuff I didn’t like, and yet none of it was enough to tilt my feelings towards liking the movie.
Of course, there is the ending of the movie that needs to be discussed. Without spoiling anything, it’s downright laughable. It’s a pretty extreme scenario to take place after what was (arguably) a personal and claustrophobic bottle film, and it’s presented to us without context. There’s no reason to care about anything that we see at the very end considering the movie was SO god damn determined to keep it a secret until the very last minute, and therefore there’s no time to give them any significance. The twist as it were, could have been easily replaced with a dozen other ideas, and it would have had the exact same impact which doesn’t say much about the twist that settled on. What does any of it matter? What does this last fifteen minute sequence tell us about the characters we were watching up until now? Honestly, that’s probably the crux of why I don’t like this movie so much. There’s way too much Mystery Box bullshit in here, but when we find out what’s inside the box it turns out to be practically nothing. That time that was wasted on setting up what may or may not have been happening could have better been used for an ACTUAL character study with realistic (while still being terrifying) characters. A lot of people don’t like the Paranormal Activity films and its ilk for using an obvious lie about them being real documentary footage to make a cheap product. I feel that my complaints about the underwhelming mystery fall along these lines as well, as the obvious lie in this case is that the mystery is going to be worth all the buildup. It’s clear from the start that it won’t be, and yet they used up so much energy to try and convince us otherwise.
There are plenty of movies that I viscerally despise and yet are considering fantastic films. Probably the best example I can think of is that Fight Club is a movie I absolutely loath and cannot stand at all, yet so many people can (legitimately) call it a masterpiece. Is this one of those cases? I honestly can’t tell because I can point to plenty of places where this movie makes really obvious and unnecessary choices that I don’t consider to be needless nitpicks in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish. Then again, I could just be trying to justify a pointless grudge against what should be considered a great film. I would recommend it for John Goodman’s performance and because I KNOW I had an unusually strong reaction against it, but I simply did not like this movie. Who knows though? Maybe this entire review was just one big misdirection, and I actually LOVE the movie! I guess you’ll have to read all my future reviews to find out THE TRUTH!! HA HA HA HA HA!!
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