10 Cloverfield Lane is an impressively compact thriller and a triumph of subjective filmmaking
10 Cloverfield Lane Paramount Pictures
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Screenplay: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr.
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 43 minutes
March 11, 2016
(out of four)
Call it a coincidence, call it what you want, but it's at least an amusing detail that one of the best examples of subjective filmmaking in recent memory has the word "Cloverfield" in the title. 10 Cloverfield Lane's connection to its 2008 namesake is considered peripheral at most, if not incidental or nonexistent. But if nothing else, it provides a handy reference point.
The Matt Reeves-directed, Drew Goddard-written, J.J. Abrams-produced Cloverfield has an established place in pop-culture as the most relevant found-footage movie of the millennium, its popularity spawning nearly a decade's worth of stylistic imitators and successors. Found-footage itself is treated as something of an ultimate in subjectivity, at least in a literal sense. We see almost exactly what the person holding (or attached to) the camera is seeing.
But 10 Cloverfield Lane - directed by Dan Trachtenberg and written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Whiplash's Damien Chazelle - beats its predecessor at its own game, and through more traditional means. The point of view belongs to Michelle (a terrific Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a twentysomething woman who packs up her things one afternoon, takes a long drive on the road to nowhere, and suddenly finds herself chained to a bed within four concrete walls, her leg injured and her head throbbing from the car accident that led her there.
Though there's no stylistic conceit requiring the camera to stay in any one place, Trachtenberg keeps us with Michelle throughout the film anyway. The way he does it speaks to a crucial difference between his point-of-view techniques and those of the previous film. Found-footage is not necessarily about perspective - certainly not emotional or sensory perspective. The format is intrinsically inhibited in that way. A traditional found-footage movie (even a good one like Cloverfield) is limited in what it can actually express. It can show plenty, and from a specific, even unique viewpoint. But at most, it reflects what a character has chosen to record. Character as artistic creator. Found-footage represents choice, not instinct.
Comparing that to what Trachtenberg accomplishes here with Winstead is telling. When Lane is a horror movie, it is exclusively because that's how Michelle feels - her interpretation of her surroundings. Our context grows through images she glancingly remembers; we discover new information only as she discovers it. The limitations of our/her viewpoint are the very reason why the film works - as thriller, as horror, as combustible comedy of manners - as well as it does.
Consider even something as simple as the way he shoots the car accident scene at the beginning of the movie. Rather than the typical (overdone) approach of positioning the camera from the passenger seat looking directly at the driver's side window, with the impact coming to the driver's side the moment the car crosses an intersection, the accident here comes abruptly and non-visually. No momentary glance at the other vehicle just before the collision. In fact, we don't see the other vehicle at all. It's all in the sound - the unexpected metal on metal, the shattering glass, the bounce off the concrete, the scattered items whipping across the seats - and how our visual equilibrium is suddenly stripped, giving way to chaos.
The next scene we see, she's stuck in that basement, left only with the ominous sounds filtering through the vents, or the pounding feet periodically approaching the reinforced steel door that locks her in. In the moments leading up to that door finally opening, the music turns fearful, shaky, malevolent, as her eyes - our camera - follow those footsteps to the door as it finally opens to reveal Michelle's captor/savior, Howard (John Goodman), whose appropriately imposing physical presence only reinforces the scary thoughts running through her head.
These are all traditional techniques, of course - all movies, all art, has a subjective point of view - but this film has a very careful application of its subjective approach that keep us almost entirely within Michelle's mindset. What she thinks and how she feels. Our big question (and hers) will obviously revolve around the nature of Howard. He's insistent, even arrogant, in his claim that he saved her life - not just by rescuing her from the wreckage of her car on the side of the road, but from an apocalyptic event (supernatural? extraterrestrial? biological?) that, he claims, has ended most of life on Earth. They're safe in this underground bunker he's spent years creating and perfecting in anticipation of such an event - and now it has come, and through the goodness of his heart he brought along a young woman in danger just before the world ended.
Oh, and then there's Emmett (John Gallagher Jr., from Short Term 12 and The Newsroom), a young man who's in this bunker voluntarily, and who seems to corroborate Howard's story.
Whether we trust Howard is a question with, as it turns out, more nuances than we initially suspect. He's either a paranoid lunatic or a forward-thinking survivalist. He's either noble or insane. He's either the most important thing that has ever happened to Michelle and Emmett - and high on the list of the most important people in all of mankind - or he is their most dangerous adversary. What we think about him and his intentions tends to shift constantly. Whether he's a good guy or a bad guy is the question, but the film finds a clever way around it.
One can't say enough about the importance of Goodman's performance. He's able to embody every single one of the things we suspect he might be, and all at once. Goodman has been so well-established as a particular type, and a particular personality, for so long that it's easy to take his nuanced eccentricity for granted. And his work here is deceptively different from his standard persona - the cadences of his speech are wonderfully irregular, almost Christopher Walken-esque. He's gentle, corny, old-fashioned. He's stern, volatile, physically terrifying. His little idiosyncrasies are either proof that he's a crackpot or evidence that he's just a normal guy. He makes Michelle squirm not just because of the situation she's in but because it's impossible to truly get a handle on him.
10 Cloverfield Lane has other things up its sleeve, but it's remarkably committed to its own slow, bottled-up tension. It doesn't cheat by plugging in omniscient shots or context or narration; it fully embraces the feeling of being in the dark, and trying to crawl - psychologically and physically - your way out of it.