The summer movie season arrives early at 10 Cloverfield Lane.
It’s related only by name to Cloverfield, the horror/monster romp produced by J.J. Abrams in 2008. The latter was a maddening 85 minutes. The first 20 were spent trying to make incredibly uninteresting, one-dimensional characters seem worthwhile. The last five minutes were end credits. In between were 60 minutes of Godzilla meets the found-footage genre. Found footage. That’s the annoying sensation started with The Blair Witch Project, the one in which Hollywood’s infatuation with first-person, shaky handheld camerawork mushroomed into all sorts of low-budget, cheap-scare flicks.
Thankfully, 10 Cloverfield Lane borrows the name simply as a device to reference what might be a new series of horror movie riffs. And this one’s a hoot. It’s a doozy. It’s a lot of things.
The story revolves around a guy named Howard (John Goodman, Arachnophobia) who rescues a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and a slacker named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr., HBO’s The Newsroom) from what appears to be the onset of nuclear war.
Well, “rescues” in this case is subject to all sorts of disclaimers. Michelle’s involved in a car wreck and wakes up to find an IV in her arm and a brace around a leg. And that brace is chained to a wall in a concrete block chamber.
What’s going on? A lot of things.
Michelle is introduced as at least a somewhat sympathetic character much more succinctly than any character in Cloverfield. The opening minutes are dialogue-free. She’s separating from her husband. The clue? Her rings are left on the counter as she walks out of the house.
It’s the car accident that sends the action into a wholly different tone. Is the movie about wartime survivalists? Is it a riff on torture porn (albeit a mainstream, PG-13 variety)? Simply having a setup that offers that range of possibilities is pretty trippy.
Survivalist action, invasion drama, torture porn, psychological thriller, sci-fi, ‘80s Spielberg funhouse flicks. All of these elements are at play in 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Helping make that genre-bending collection tie together is Goodman’s perfectly off-kilter performance. As described by Emmett, Howard has a black belt in conspiracy theories. He believes in mutant space worms. But zombies? Nah. Impossible. Is he a legitimate survivalist doing good or is he a nut job puppeteer creating a fiction about what’s going on outside his underground bunker in order to dominate his captives?
All is revealed in due course. The less one knows about this movie going in, the better the experience.
Goodman’s great in his nuanced role. But he’s looking very heavy again — and his girth yields some heavy breathing during most of his dialogue, much like Nick Nolte in A Walk in the Woods. Goodman’s health seems pretty scary, but it’s not the scariest element in this funhouse.
With a small cast of eight, including a voice-only cameo by Bradley Cooper (an Abrams alumnus dating back to TV’s Alias), the tensions come from several directions. The real and the imagined blur as Howard’s situation grows more complicated.
Partly a confined-space drama like Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Rope, partly a modern funhouse ride, 10 Cloverfield Lane is good not because it has a surprise, twist ending. It’s that it goes full-tilt in a direction that seemed so far-fetched when it was first brought up among characters who were so mindful to always use coasters and placemats while dining on Howard’s fine wood kitchen table.