The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

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Gimme Shelter

Paramount Pictures
 103 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed byDan Trachtenberg 
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.
10 Cloverfield Lane

Marketing gimmicks are as old as Hollywood itself (William Castle was far better at gimmickry than at producing or directing), but usually, the idea behind a gimmick is to call attention to the movie being promoted as early and as widely as possible. Leave it to J.J. Abrams, who breathed new energy into both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises and broke all the rules in six seasons of Lost to break a fundamental rule of marketing and, in the process, do something many might have thought impossible.


In a social media era in which any glimmer of news or rumor about a popular film or franchise, especially one in the science fiction, horror, or fantasy genres, becomes viral in a matter of hours, Abrams managed to keep an entire movie a total secret. And not just any movie, but one that may or may not have been a sequel to his wildly popular 2008 science fiction thriller, Cloverfield. Audiences watching Paramount’s 13 Hours the weekend of January 15 were treated to a bizarre trailer for a movie none of them had heard anything about. At the end of the trailer, when the word “Cloverfield” appeared, and eventually became the film’s title, 10 Cloverfield Lane, audiences realized that Abrams had pulled a fast one on them. And, in the six weeks between the trailer’s release and the movie’s premiere, Abrams generated as much or more buzz than if he had promoted the project for months.


The marketing of 10 Cloverfield Lane was unquestionably inspired, and the trailer is one of the best in recent years, but could the film itself live up to the firestorm of hype? The short answer is yes, it does, at least as well as any low budget film without major stars can under the circumstances.


10 Cloverfield Lane began as a script for a routine thriller called “The Cellar” that Abrams’ Bad Robot production company bought on spec. But when he saw the possibilities, he and three writers, including Whiplash’s Damian Chazelle, massaged the script into a work that could fit into the Cloverfield universe, maybe. Because, until the final reveal (which I most definitely won’t spoil here), audiences are never quite sure whether Abrams and his writers are being straight with them or simply pulling off another giant bit of misdirection.


The film echoes Hitchcock’s Psycho in its opening sequences as Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman looking to get away from a troublesome relationship, heads off on the road for parts unknown. After hearing some strange reports of disturbances on the radio, her trip ends suddenly when her car is rammed by a fast moving pickup truck.


When she wakes up, Michelle is in a bare prison-like room, chained the wall. Soon, her captor Howard (John Goodman) arrives and tells her that he has not kidnapped her but in fact, rescued her. Howard is a survivalist and, worried that the end was nigh, built a survival shelter and stocked with months of provisions. Then, doomsday occurred, perhaps Russians, perhaps Martians (according to Howard), and the outside world in uninhabitable.


Quite naturally, Michelle doesn’t believe Howard, even after she meets Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), the shelter’s third inhabitant. He’s a handyman type who says he helped Howard build the shelter and then insisted Howard take him in. Howard’s version of events appears to be correct, as Michelle and the audience discover, when she makes a run for it and arrives at the exit door only to see a nearly incoherent, obviously ill woman trying to get in.


First-time director Dan Trachtenberg and the writers play games with the audience throughout most of 10 Cloverfield Lane, selectively revealing information from Michelle’s perspective and always dangling the questions of just what, if anything, happened outside, and just how nutty Howard is. He’s clearly disturbed, at best a paranoid survivalist nut who happened to guess right and at worst the kind of guy who has an unhealthy fixation on keeping attractive young women chained up in an underground room for months.


Enclosed, claustrophobic settings like this naturally lend themselves to suspense (as evidenced by last year’s Room), and Trachtenberg ratchets up the suspense, even as a seeming sense of normalcy sets in. Occasional strange noises and rattling vibrations come from outside, while inside, Michelle finds bits and pieces of unexplained evidence that Howard’s story of his wife and daughter leaving may not have been accurate. Emmett is only a plot device, for the most part, but a very useful one, serving as a sounding board for Michelle to explain some of her plans for the audience’s benefit while also seeming to give Howard’s story credibility that it might not otherwise have.


Michelle does eventually try to escape, and the movie maintains its suspense as Trachtenberg shifts effortlessly into action mode. He falls back on the tried-and-true stratagem of having the considerably smaller Michelle crawl through overhead air conditioning ducts to maneuver around in tight spaces where the considerably larger Howard cannot go. It’s been done many times before, but it works here quite well due to the tension that’s already been established. And the film does an excellent job of foreshadowing. Every little bit of business revealed in the first two thirds winds up paying off at the finale.


But the main reason 10 Cloverfield Lane works are the two leads. Mary Elizabeth Winstead should move up to the A-list with a gritty, grounded performance as a credibly resourceful heroine who proves far tougher than she first appears. However, the film belongs to John Goodman, who dominates every scene he’s in, and not merely because of his size. Goodman plays so many comic roles that it’s easy to forget how good he can be playing a villain. Here, he underplays what could have been simply a raving nutcase, in order to keep Michelle and the audience guessing, as he shifts moods and expressions from one line of dialogue to the next. It’s not hard to picture some Oscar attention coming his way next year.


Eventually, 10 Cloverfield Lane reveals what’s really going on, and, after the way the filmmakers built it up for 90 minutes, the final act has to be somewhat of a letdown, no matter how it was handled. There’s a reason why memorable Twilight Zone episodes cut off right at the twist ending, because the longer they would have gone on, the more anticlimactic they would have become, and the more viewers would have noted the plot holes and implausibilities. Here, the filmmakers gave viewers the best sendoff they could, given the film’s budgetary constraints, but those last 15 minutes don’t live up to the first 90.


10 Cloverfield Lane is further proof that successful filmmaking does not require gigantic effects and location budgets, spectacular set pieces, or big name above-the-title actors. Instead, with a $5 million budget, and a relatively unheralded lead actress and a reliable TV sidekick heading a small cast, Trachtenberg has made what will probably be one of the best suspense films of the year, following what undoubtedly has been the best marketing campaign of the year. Is 10 Cloverfield Lane part of the Cloverfield universe? I’m not saying, but it is an address worth checking out.

Read other reviews of 10 Cloverfield Lane:


10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) on IMDb