10 Cloverfield Lane — 7/10

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016, Dan Trachtenberg)

If you haven’t seen this movie yet and intend to, then you should stop reading and come back when you have. Most of my reviews are written for audiences who have already seen the films in question, but this one especially. Because it’s tough to write about without spoiling.

Quite a cool logical hole these guys have found in movies of this type. From the setup (creepy guy holding young woman prisoner in underground bomb shelter, raving about attacks with unsubstantiated paranoia), we’re programmed to think of a binary solution: either he’s right, or he’s crazy/evil. For some reason we haven’t yet seen a movie where both are true — and why can’t they be? It’s not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, the murderous evil weirdo is justified in his paranoia. Just because he’s creepy, doesn’t mean he can’t be right. So this film works precisely because a) Michelle is right to think Howard lied about his daughter and killed Brittany after keeping her prisoner; and b) Howard is right that there was an attack, the air is (often) poisonous, and he’s keeping them safe.

So that’s a fine premise, and it’s carried out nicely by writers Campbell and Stuecken (a producer and editor getting their first screen credit) and rewriter Chazelle (and who knows how many other hands it went through). But Trachtenberg (also a first-timer) elevates it with some really well-controlled direction. It’s suspenseful without resorting to cheap thrills; it paces itself beautifully, slowly raising the stakes and letting character detail drive the drama. Michelle is shown as plucky and resourceful (if a little dangerous) from the start — her attempt to smoke out the prison cell predicts her molotov cocktail performance at the end. Howard is socially awkward and emotionally stunted, nicely explored in the scenes where he can’t even hold together a dinner conversation and can’t come up with the word “woman.” Clearly Michelle’s needs and Howard’s desires won’t co-exist for long, so that keeps us on the edge of our seats.

Goodman has been fantastic for a long time. From his early work in Coen Brothers movies to voice work in stuff like MONSTERS, INC. to scene-stealing supporting work in films such as THE GAMBLER, ARGO, and FLIGHT, it seems there’s nothing he can’t do. His measured work as Howard here is some of the best acting he’s done. By the end, each line and action he’s made throughout the film seems right. Winstead is pretty good herself, though she doesn’t sell the key scene where she cries after Emmett’s death. Gallagher is once again very strong, making this a solid three-hander with very few weak links. I don’t know that it’s too ambitious or in any way revelatory or profound, and the creature effects at the end are a little disappointing, but it’s a solid calling card for absolutely everyone involved.

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