Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Children, Behave: 10 Cloverfield Lane

John Gallagher, Jr., Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Note: This review contains major spoilers for 10 Cloverfield Lane.
The title of 10 Cloverfield Lane shouldn’t have the word “Cloverfield” in it. Its original title, "The Cellar," would have been just as mysterious and gripping as the film itself – but it wouldn’t have put butts in seats the way an association with the 2008 Matt Reeves film would. Trailers for Lane popped up only two months before release, to everyone’s surprise (“What? There’s a new Cloverfield movie? Wow… okay!”). I can’t help feeling, however, that slapping a recognizable title on a film that – spoiler – has pretty much zero to do with Cloverfield was an incredibly disingenuous move, one that is made that much more irritating because Lane is a great film in its own right whose branding only weighs it down.

The “surprise” of the climax, in which Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finally escapes her captivity only to discover that John Goodman’s Howard was right all along, and that there really is an alien invasion, is essentially ruined by the title. The trailers hardly give anything significant away – all you know going into the film, thanks to the title, is that it must feature some kind of apocalyptic monster attack. You can’t build an (admittedly gripping and wonderful) thriller around a surprise reveal that isn’t a surprise! The blame can’t be laid at the feet of the marketing department, because this is a problem at the base level. Bad Robot, the production company owned by J.J. Abrams, clearly acquired the script for "The Cellar" and decided its only chance of turning a profit was by making it a tie-in to their earlier film (also produced by Abrams) – which meant adding a big knockout action climax, and a liberal supply of audience-pandering elements like frequent jump scares and scary audio cues. It’s to the credit of the incredible cast, the director Dan Trachtenberg, and the writing crew (Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, & Damien Chazelle) that 10 Cloverfield Lane manages to acquit itself despite these setbacks, and deliver a genuinely heart-pounding and ultimately satisfying thriller anyway.

Trachtenberg, whose resume so far consists mostly of commercial work and the occasional short film (including one based on the 2007 game Portal), does an amazing job of investing Lane’s simple premise and setting with abundant, near-constant tension. There are only a few rooms in Howard’s bunker but the film is always visually interesting. His framing and lighting as the story progresses transform Michelle’s room from a hellish prison to a comfy sanctuary and back again, sometimes within the same scene. The bunker is a small physical space whose details – a photo album, a shower curtain, a pair of scissors – are more than set dressing: they’re tools that become instruments of life or death. Part of what attracted me so much to the structure of the film was Trachtenberg’s clear experience with video games, evident not only in his Portal fan film but here, in the way Michelle functions almost like a Telltale game protagonist: thrust into a confined space, with innocuous objects strewn around her that she uses to escape her quirky, too-friendly captor. The way certain shots are framed is sometimes eerily reminiscent of the way a game would convey information to a player; at one point a photo falls out of a book to the floor and I could have sworn a prompt was about to appear onscreen that read “Press X to pick up”. It’s fascinating to see how young, unproven filmmakers like Trachtenberg are bringing the vocabulary of gaming into the cinematic world, as part of a sort of feedback loop born from the film-inspired games our generation has enjoyed for years. This isn’t even something most viewers will notice. There’s plenty of Hitchcockian bomb-under-the-table tension to keep any audience enraptured, regardless of whether they pick up on this specific frequency the film’s putting out. But if I were a bettin’ man, I’d keep an eye out for this kind of influence to become more and more common in the future.

The real reason Lane works so well is its cast. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a character with very little dialogue a real character, whose huge, hyper-emotional eyes bring us right inside her head. She avoids the pitfall of too closely resembling a video game protagonist by giving Michelle enough personality that she’s not just a blank audience surrogate. She is not passive – she is constantly thinking, planning, and plotting, always a few steps away from her next escape attempt. We are constantly following her eyes to a new object she can use as a weapon, or watching her deflect attention away from herself. Even when she is defeated and terrified, we can see the gears turning behind her eyes. Winstead, in earlier films like Scott Pilgrim and Death Proof, proved she could do much with little, but this is a whole new level of magnetism – she is a bona fide badass heroine and I can’t wait to see her career explode. She makes 10 Cloverfield Lane work.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

I mean, it can’t hurt that she has John Goodman to play off of, whose casting as Howard is inspired. He’s a character whose motivations are constantly in flux, which plays into our concept of him as a big cuddly bear of a man: he’s likeable, yes, but he also has an undercurrent of steel in his deep voice and his huge frame. I think we’ve always been attracted to him as an actor because we both love and fear him, and he uses that disarming quality to incredible effect as Howard. One minute he’s a crazy kidnapper, the next he’s a quirky but likeable conspiracy nut, and then he’s straight back to psycho pervert. He keeps us – and the people trapped in his bunker with him – constantly on our toes, electrifying every scene he’s in with potential energy and looming like a distant storm cloud when he’s absent. He is, after all, just a few rooms away at all times. Every single conversation is probably a conversation he overhears. And because Goodman is such a pro, you can’t even take refuge in the knowledge that he’s just a psychotic bad guy. There’s a human element to him that makes everything – his behaviour, and your reaction to it – so much murkier. It’s genius.

John Gallagher, Jr. is the weak point of the triangle, and not for lack of trying – his Emmett is sweet and dopey and lovable – but I can’t help feeling he was a loose end during the writing stage. I kept expecting Emmett to show signs of a sinister nature, to indicate that he wasn’t as sweet as he seemed… but he was. He was never a threat to Michelle, and in a thriller like this, I feel that was a missed opportunity. The bunker would have become a feverish hotbox of paranoia if he’d been even half as scary as Howard.

But for all that Goodman and Trachtenberg bring to it, Lane isn’t as scary as it could be. I’m not saying that as a jaded, desensitized genre fan (although I am one) – I think the “Bad Robot touches”, to coin a phrase, actually hurt the film’s impact. It’s almost as though, just as they didn’t trust that "The Cellar" would sell tickets, they don’t trust the audience to follow them through their story. The film is injected with loud, sudden audio cues (every time Michelle’s door is cranked open) and musical crescendos that lead to jump scares (Emmett emerging from behind a shelf, gawping innocently), as if the studio was terrified the audience would look down at their phones. And this is nothing compared with the alien attack at the end, which, though it’s executed skillfully, feels totally out of place with the rest of the film. Until that final scene, Lane is an exercise in supremely satisfying setups and payoffs, with every tiny detail eventually returning and becoming important. The one detail you are aware of going in – the setup of the Cloverfield brand – is the one that doesn’t pay off, since the aliens have nothing to do with the monster from the original movie. The action climax is exactly as dumb and pandering as the film is otherwise smart and surprising.

When Lane works, it works beautifully. You can feel a heart-in-mouth, no-holds-barred indie thriller pulsing gently under the excessively Hollywood veneer. In another timeline, this film kept the title "The Cellar" and went the way of other fantastic, unique, and unforgettable indie thrillers like Blue Ruin and The Witch, untainted by studio meddling and unburdened by box office success. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a cult film in everything but name, and the name is what stops the film from being everything it wants to be.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

No comments:

Post a Comment