Friday, 18 March 2016

Movie Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)



The found footage sub-genre, in its own way, represents a microcosm of the entirety of cinema. Its evolution as a form of storytelling kind of reflects that of motion pictures as a whole; at the very least, in the way that in its infancy, many creators came forward and kept reinventing the wheel in terms of what it was capable of. Concentrate all that history and all the evolutions made in camera technology, and you have the modern day history of found footage. Over the last several years, we’ve seen it primarily used as a means to tell ghost stories, thanks to The Blair Witch Project and especially Paranormal Activity, but then others came along with their own ideas: Superhero action films (Chronicle), party films (Project X), even dark comedic thrillers (The Visit). One of the more underrated innovations of the culture was 2009’s Cloverfield, directed by the guy who gave us War Of The Planet Of The Apes and produced by the man determined to own every modern aspect of science fiction. A monster film, shot like real-life footage; all things considered, a fairly hefty leap forward. So, with today’s film not only sharing similar viral marketing but also its title (for a third of it, at least) with that landmark, how does it fare? This is 10 Cloverfield Lane.

The plot: After getting into a car crash, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself in an underground bunker under the care(?) of Howard (John Goodman), who warns her that the surface isn't safe anymore after an unspecified attack pretty much destroyed the rest of humanity. Stuck underground with Howard and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), she soon realizes that she is not safe in the bunker... but can she risk what may be waiting for her outside?

Okay, I’m beginning to think that I just wasted your time with that intro because the links between this film and Cloverfield are tenuous at best. And make no mistake, this is very much being sold on its potential connection to that film, what with not only the name Cloverfield being in the title but how it’s also emphasized in both the film’s trailers and the opening credits. If I had to try and find some connections, I guess there’s some correlation with how both deal with how everyday people handle how their lives can be so suddenly changed, and drastically at that, by the appearance of… let’s say ‘foreign elements’. But that’s surprisingly superficial if there is meant to be a connection and, if we’re being honest, the director Dan Trachtenberg has been dicking around with people concerning this film anyway so I don’t think official word on the matter should be trusted. What the hell is it with J.J. Abrams and seriously annoying marketing? Don’t get me wrong, the trailer for this film is all kinds of awesome, but selling on the name of a film that didn’t get nearly the recognition that it should have is more than a little screwy. I could speculate further but, considering how a running joke in this film is how much John Goodman buys into conspiracy theories, I don’t want to encourage behaviour that the film actively mocks.

Anyway, massive tangent but that seriously did bug me for a bit upon leaving the theatre. Time to get into the film itself and… holy hell. The film opens on some truly gorgeous and eerily vacant camera work from DOP Jeff Cutter, setting up an atmosphere of utter dread and isolation that the film somehow manages to keep persistent throughout the entire film. On that merit alone, this film deserves some props because, seriously, how many films nowadays are able to keep that stable a tone for its entirety? This film is fucking terrifying, I’m not going to throw stones about it, and that is thanks to three main factors. The first is the aforementioned camera work which, while throwing the audience for a loop with the initially wide open shots of empty fields and roads, makes the bunker feel at once spacious, homely, claustrophobic and skin-crawlingly unsettling. The second is the music by Bear McCreary, who seems to warp string sections and electronic bumps and bleeps into the kind of soundtrack that is designed to give people heart attacks. Honestly, the weakest part concerning music is, oddly enough, a part lifted from the trailer involving I Think We’re Alone Now; without the sickly slowdown, it just swerves away from the rest of the film in a way that isn’t exactly healthy. The third is the amazing cast, comprised of only three on-screen actors, one off-screen cameo from Bradley Cooper and a brief appearance by Suzanne Cryer as… well, someone who makes the core dilemma a bit murkier to figure out.

John Goodman, in no uncertain terms, is in prime form with easily one of the most terrifying performances I’ve seen since in the last few years, right up there with Joel Edgerton in The Gift and Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. He sticks to this weird holding pattern between potentially trustworthy and balls-to-the-wall crazy, something that is also maintained throughout the entire film. Seriously, even for as many loops as we are thrown given his character, there’s still this element of sympathy to be felt with his character and, between him and whatever may lay in waiting outside the bunker, he often feels like the ‘safe’ option all things considered despite what he ends up doing, something that ends up making him even more horrifying as the psycho that, unfortunately, may be your only hope. Winstead, someone whom I have been waiting to impress me again ever since her heavily underrated turn in Sky High, is fantastic as our focal point, managing to pull off MacGyver-like ingenuity without it coming across as being beyond her believable skills. She’s genuinely kind of badass in this thing. Gallagher Jr. arrives at a similar point to Goodman, only he’s a lot more on the level from the get-go… and yet, with everything going on, even he comes across as pretty suspicious. He also has some very helpful chemistry with Winstead, which ends up defusing the tension at just the right moments to help the overall package.

Coming from an assistant editor, an associate producer and that guy who made a film about some jazz drummer, this is an astoundingly sharp script. No scenes feel like they’re just taking up space, not even the aforementioned Tommy James moment, and no line of dialogue ends up being wasted. Everything either ends up building some form of character or furthering the already astronomical tension levels. Character motivations are informed upon but not necessarily spelled out, mostly with Howard whose backstory and reasoning makes sense for why he does what he does and, like I said, the fact that he may be a saviour just makes everything that much more unsettling. And then the science-fiction elements start to kick in… and I weirdly don’t have much to complain about. Don’t get me wrong, it’s more than a little jarring to suddenly feel like I’m watching a completely different film… except it doesn’t really end up feeling like that at all. The characters stay consistent, as does the tone and production methods, so it ends up still making sense within the film itself. Considering how the ending was changed after Abrams got his hands on it, it would be understandable to foresee a sort-of From Dusk Till Dawn style genre switch-up. Thankfully, it keeps a suitable pace and doesn’t betray what came before it since, weirdly, said elements are actually subtly but effectively set up throughout the film. It takes an awful lot of effort to pull off a gambit like that.

All in all, regardless of whatever connection this may or may not have with Cloverfield, this is still an amazingly well-crafted thriller, full of gripping moments and excellent performances. John Goodman may have gotten to flex some intimidating muscle thanks to his work with the Coen brothers, but nothing quite this nightmare-inducing. Even its marketing doesn’t end up harming it, since this at least doesn’t have quite as inordinate an amount of hype to it as, say, that other sci-fi film J.J. Abrams was involved in from last year. Without a shadow of a doubt, this is one to check out. I rank this one higher than Spotlight because, honestly, a fair amount of why that film worked so well was based on exterior factors, i.e. the fact that the atrocities involved were still on-going in real life. This, by comparison, works perfectly in and out of a vacuum, even with its strained ties to other films. However, even with how truly great this turned out, it still doesn’t quite measure up to the intense amount of forethought that went into the writing of Hail, Caesar!

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