At the Movies with Alan Gekko: 10 Cloverfield Lane

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller/ Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.; Voice of Bradley Cooper/ Runtime: 103 minutes

In 1971, a young filmmaker by the name of Steven Spielberg directed a film based on a Richard Matheson novel for ABC Television called Duel and to be honest Duel was, and still is, fantastic and in fact it proved so successful that Universal Studios released it into theaters in Europe and in the process also announced Spielberg as an important, new filmmaker to watch. Four years later, we would get another movie from Spielberg called Jaws and this time Spielberg’s film would not only shatter box office records worldwide but also changed the paradigm so thoroughly that nothing remained the same and hasn’t since. Simply put, there would be no Jaws without Duel and in fact if we want to go even further there would be no Godfather without Francis Ford Coppola’s foray into horror which was 1963’s Dementia-13. In fact I think it’s safe to safe that many of our great directors first cut their teeth in what was otherwise genre fare or low-budget filmmaking that wound up showcasing remarkable talents and their visions.

I guess the reason I bring this up is because it truly is a beat around the bush way of saying that Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane truly is a remarkable first feature. Indeed here is a film that is confidently directed, expertly paced, thrilling and above all genuinely scary. It is also a film that has a base in the form of three fantastic performances, including a career great one by John Goodman, who is at turns sympathetic, funny, and terrifying, sometimes all in the same scene, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle who is resourceful, smart, and heroic to the point of being a freaking female MacGyver and who also carries the film, and John Gallagher Jr.’s Emmett who gives kindness and humor to his performance. Indeed all three of these fine and fantastic actors play off each other absolutely perfectly, and by doing so manage to create for our viewing pleasure an absolutely effective and riveting dynamic. That and Trachtenberg’s direction of these actors is so orchestrated masterfully that even as the dread in the film builds to almost unbearable levels, the focus still manages to brilliant stay on the 3 actors performances to the point that the characters’ fears are our own. Thus when you combine all these wonderful ingredients together, what you get as a result is a ride that is truly one of a kind and more exhilarating than you could ever imagine.

Now although it has been said before this genuinely is a film where the less you know going into it the better off you will be. All the same the film’s basic premise has a distraught young woman named Michelle (Winstead) leaving her boyfriend after an argument and while on the road just doing her best to get away from it all and clear her mind she is suddenly involved in a terrible accident and soon awakens, injured and chained to a pipe, just as a man named Howard (Goodman) coolly walks in and subsequently informs her that the world has basically ended, and that Howard has saved her life and Michelle finds herself, for lack of a better word, trapped in Howard’s underground bunker with both Howard and local handyman Emmett (Gallagher). Despite her situation however, Michelle finds herself desperate to know the truth not only about her captor/savior but also about the reality of the situation outside. Of course, things are not as they seem, and soon the drama between Michelle, Howard, and Emmett escalates to a breaking point that will change their lives forever…

Now Dan Trachtenberg, along with screenwriters Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle, I must say all do an absolutely beautiful job of elegantly building the tension in this film. This is because 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t really tease or cheat and each scare truly is legitimate, and in fact I caught myself jumping a few times. In addition each new piece of information we and Michelle learn slowly but surely begins to open this film’s world up, and while this is going on 10 Cloverfield Lane also admirably doesn’t hold back when it needs to ratchet up the intensity and there is such a confidence in how Trachtenberg tells this story that this to be perfectly honest with you all doesn’t feel like a first film at all. Indeed while the setting is intimate, there are, without going into spoilers, larger things and ideas at work that make 10 Cloverfield Lane more than the sum of its parts so much so that even with the extremely limited information the audience receives we still find ourselves invested thoroughly in this world that Trachtenberg and the screenwriters have created.

Now although the score in this film is appropriately dark and foreboding it also doesn’t telegraph the scares either because some of the most terrifying sequences in this film have little music at all. Plus the editing keeps everything moving briskly, and the cinematography is absolutely top-notch in how it not only builds the claustrophobia and the dread, but it also does a great job of not shying away from the bigger moments. Yet while the film’s budget is clearly on the lower side of the budget spectrum the film never feels like it is constraining against it, and again thanks to a sense of authenticity that proves itself to feel genuine it is not difficult for the audience to fall into this world.

Now although it is no secret that the man has had quite the long and storied career as one of our finest character actors I think I can safely say that this truly is and without a doubt in my mind some of the best damn work John Goodman has ever done. Indeed with his portrayal of Howard Goodman truly gives us an amazing balancing act that feels almost like the male equivalent of Kathy Bates’ role in Misery, to the extent that by equal turns we are simultaneously repulsed and yet sympathetic to Howard. Yet Goodman manages to navigate the difficulties of the character (and the secrets of the plot) with a grace that is rarely seen much nowadays and while we are never quite sure of Howard’s intentions, Goodman still manages to nail this role and plays it like a master cellist. It also helps that he’s supported so well by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr because as our heroine Winstead truly does a fantastic job giving as much as she takes from Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr. does a fantastic job of bringing some levity into his work as Emmett. Indeed it really is our as an audience bonding with these characters that, without a doubt in my mind, is the biggest reason that 10 Cloverfield Lane works as well as it does especially in the darker, scarier moments that this film throws at us as it goes along.

All in all like what the movie Duel did all those years ago or Dementia-13 did in 1963, I strongly feel like this truly is a bold announcement of a major new voice in film as 10 Cloverfield Lane is a genuinely remarkable, extremely well-acted, and just downright amazing achievement in genre cinema, and I honestly can’t wait to see what Dan Trachtenberg does next. On a scale of 1-5 I give 10 Cloverfield Lane a solid 4 out of 5.